August 5, 2008

Fire Causes Health Scare

By Joanie Baker, Messenger-Inquirer, Owensboro, Ky.

Aug. 5--More than 30 firefighters and 50 tons of sand were needed Monday to extinguish a chemical fire at Owensboro Grain Edible Oils that emitted hazardous fumes.

The fire started in a storage building that contained nickel catalyst, a metal-like chemical that is volatile and can react with itself, or even water, Owensboro Fire Department Assistant Chief John Vessels said.

The cause of the fire is unknown, but Vessels said it could have started from something as simple as humidity that accumulated in the barn-size building outside the facility on Ewing Road near Warehouse Road.

Because of the water-sensitivity of the chemical, firefighters had to bring in foam to contain it sufficiently until large "rock-blowing" trucks -- typically used to throw foundation bases into houses -- could blow more than 50 tons of sand to smother the fire.

Residents and employees of businesses near Owensboro Grain were advised to stay inside, and city police officers took cover in their vehicles as officials learned that the chemical can be hazardous if inhaled or absorbed through the skin.

No one was injured.

"It's extremely dangerous because it can react upon itself," Vessels said. "You can put the fire down, but whereas most of the time we could walk away at that time, this could ignite itself. It's just like a trick candle on a birthday cake. Until we smother it and completely put it out, we can't leave it."

About 7:30 p.m., Vessels said the sand seemed to be working. He said after the flames were extinguished, firefighters would use thermal imaging cameras to detect any hot spots or possible sources of reignition.

Jeff Erb, chief financial officer of Owensboro Grain, said the chemical is used in the refining process when the company refines oil.

Vessels said officials were concerned because the storage building was close to containers of alcohol, oxygen and paint. All firefighters underwent a decontamination process where they were hosed down in their gear and air masks to avoid contamination.

The Daviess County chapter of the American Red Cross brought the heat-stricken workers sandwiches and hamburgers as they peeled off their water-logged clothing and cooled off behind mist fans.

Vessels said a chemical cleanup company from Evansville was expected to begin taking down the scene Monday night.

"I'm feeling confident that this will be taken care of quickly," Vessels said. " ... We'll finish the rest of cleanup tonight and tomorrow."


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