Chemical leak in Richmond contained, shelter in place

The Associated Press
Wednesday May 02, 2001

RICHMOND — A chemical leak in Richmond that forced residents to stay inside for much of the day Tuesday has been contained, said Contra Costa County health officials. 

Residents living near the plant were told to stay inside Tuesday while crews worked to contain a cloud of sulfur dioxide and sulfur trioxide.  

That shelter in place order was lifted shortly after 7 p.m. and officials suggested that residents open their windows to allow their homes to air out. 

At least 25 people went to area hospitals before the leak was contained at 6:20 p.m. Contra Costa County Hazardous Materials officials said they did not consider it a major release. 

The leak started when workers at General Chemical Corp. – which regenerates sulfuric acid – tried to restart operations after a power outage.  

The outage was caused when a vehicle hit a pole at about 2 p.m., knocking down electric lines to the plant. 

A turbine would not come back online when power was restored, causing the leak, said Jim Gallagher, of Contra Costa County Health Services.  

Small amounts of the chemicals leaked from the plant, but it was not a problem until the wind changed, Gallagher said, and the turbine was not fixed. 

“This thing escalated over a course of time,” Gallagher said. 

“Normally these things can be brought back online and corrected quickly. Normal didn’t happen.” 

As the afternoon wore on, the shift in wind caused the chemicals to be carried over a wider area. Contra Costa County declared a level three alert at 4:00 p.m. The county sounded its warning signs and issued a shelter-in-place order. 

People within a half mile radius of the plant – north and east of the Richmond Parkway – were told to stay inside, close their windows and turn off their air conditioners. 

Officials at General Chemical could not be reached for comment. 

The company was told not to bring the plant back online until health officials were notified and assured all problems were corrected, Gallagher said. That could be as soon as Wednesday morning. 

A 1993 oleum leak at General Chemical sent some 24,000 people in West Contra Costa County to seek medical attention.  

After that, the plant reduced oleum storage from 600 tons to 36 tons. 

Richmond, home to numerous oil refineries and chemical companies, has often been the site of chemical releases and other industrial accidents. 

In October, one man was killed and thousands of people told to stay indoors after an explosion and fire rocked a plastics recycling center.