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Institute plant delayed reporting Tuesday leak

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A silver recovery plant in Institute was evacuated Tuesday after the improper mixing of chemicals caused an overheated reaction, officials said.

The incident was the second in a little more than a week at Catalyst Refiners, which is located adjacent to the Bayer CropScience facility and to the northwest of Bayer's operations.

No injuries were reported, but some area officials were furious that they first learned of the incident 90 minutes after it occurred -- and then only because officials at the neighboring Bayer plant decided to evacuate its workers and called the county emergency responders.

"The failure of this particular operator to timely advise emergency officials not to ... mention the public at large, is unacceptable," Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper said in a statement.

Scott Schmidt, the Catalyst Refiners plant manager, said the incident occurred shortly after 11 a.m. when an employee was mixing nitric acid, hydrogen peroxide and water.

Catalyst Refiners uses the mixture of the three to extract silver that's been used to produce the common chemical building block ethylene oxide from ethylene.

According to Schmidt, the employee mixed the three substances incorrectly -- either in improper amounts or too quickly -- prompting an overheated reaction.

Schmidt said no liquid escaped the facility and he believes most of the gas released from the plant into the air was peroxide, rather than nitric acid or other nitrogen compounds -- though the facility had no air-monitoring system to confirm that.

Last year, Catalyst Refiners reported storing an average of 6,000 pounds of hydrogen peroxide and 36,000 pounds of nitric acid at its Institute facility, said Lawrence Messina, spokesman for state Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety.

During the silver recovery process, the chemicals are mixed in a 1,200 gallon stainless steel container, Schmidt said. He said the reaction vessel contained about 250 gallons of the mixture at the time of the incident, and that the company estimated about 80 gallons "boiled off" during the reaction.

A press release from Kanawha County officials, said, "At this time, Catalyst Refiners have estimated the release was approximately 950 pounds of nitric acid."

Kathy Cosco, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Environmental Protection, said her agency was notified of the incident shortly before 2 p.m. Cosco said DEP was initially told the leak involved hydrogen peroxide, but had not been told how much was released.

"We've got someone headed out there to investigate," Cosco said.

In their press release, Kanawha County Emergency Management officials said that Bayer contacted them about the incident at about 12:30 p.m., and that Bayer called Metro 911 shortly after 1 p.m.

"I made the mistake of not notifying at first," Schmidt said. "I take full responsibility."

Bayer said in a statement that it called a "precautionary shelter-in-place" for its plant workers from about 1 p.m. to 3:25 p.m. following a wind shift during the Catalyst Refiners leak.

On Aug. 24, two workers at Catalyst Refiners were transported to the hospital after a nitric acid leak at the facility.

Schmidt said that incident occurred when a light bulb in a fixture above a different mixing tank broke. He said the company believes metal from the bulb reacted with the materials in the tank, causing the spill.

Catalyst Refiners is owned by New York-based Ames Goldsmith Corp.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.

 


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