911 call reveals shocking details about Olin chlorine leak in McIntosh

Olin Chlor Alkali Products facility in McIntosh, Ala. (Credit: Franz Barraza, Chief Photographer, WALA FOX10 News)

It's an incident that still has the McIntosh community reeling, unable to trust the chemical plant next door, who allegedly exposed them to chlorine gas without notifying them.

Desperate for answers about the largest chlorine leak since 2010 at the Olin Corporation chemical plant last month, dozens of McIntosh residents turned to FOX10 News Investigates for help.

Investigative Reporter Kati Weis heard their concerns and has been working for the last month to uncover the truth about what happened.

WHAT WENT WRONG

There's a lot of things that went wrong on February 15, from the Olin employees' mistake that led to the chlorine leak, to the reason why police officers were sent directly to the place where the cloud of toxic gas had traveled, to the company's failure to effectively alert the impoverished community right across the street about the release of chlorine gas near their neighborhood.

One neighbor, Tammie Reed, who lives about 100 yards from the Olin property, fears that last mistake may have permanently jeopardized her health.

"On February 15th, I actually noticed that the alarm was going off, so I stepped on my porch, and I looked around,” Reed recalled. “When I stepped outside, and took a big sniff, I said, something's fishy. So, I just went back inside… At that time, I was just thinking it was something malfunctioning with them, because if it was something devastating going on, they would actually come around and alarm people, and let us know, but no one did come around."

Olin has admitted that while their shelter-in-place alarm sounded, the community call notification system was not working at the time of the incident, so neighbors, like Reed, were not aware that a toxic gas was floating near their homes.

Olin said it has since fixed that notification system, and plant officials are “discussing ways to better inform the community if incidents occur and educate them on shelter-in-place procedures.”

According to an incident report written by Olin, 738 pounds of chlorine gas leaked that night. Chemists say that would be almost enough to fill an entire tank car. That amount is also nearly four times as much as what the facility usually emits into the air over a year period, EPA documents show.

The Olin incident report says after maintenance crews finished their work, settings were not returned to normal, so when the night shift came in to do their regular duties, chlorine started leaking.

About an hour and a half after the leak began, according to the report, plant officials called 911.

In the 911 call, a plant supervisor asks the dispatcher for her advice on what to do. Here is a transcription of some of the call:

"Supervisor: There's chlorine gas at the boat landing… do you think we need an officer to block off the road where nobody can go down to the boat landing? Dispatcher: Um, I can send you one if you want me to… how long do you think it will take for that to blow out? Supervisor: Well, most of the event is over with, there's still some probably coming off the top of the tank, but not a lot. But, when I get back to my monitors, I can call you back. Dispatcher: Okay, I can go ahead and have McIntosh stage up right there, and just call me back and let me know, okay? Supervisor: Okay, thank you."

In a written statement to FOX10 News Investigates, Olin said, “We have carefully examined everything about the Feb. 15 chlorine release event to determine what we could do to keep this from happening again. While we deployed our emergency plan, there were operational procedures that could have been better implemented. We have also begun the installation of additional equipment that will help us improve our operations.”

HOW LOCALS WERE AFFECTED

Not long after the leak, Reed said she was diagnosed with asthma.

“The next following day, I started feeling a choking, like something was choking me,” she said. Reed wasn’t the only one who claims to have gotten sick after the incident.

Lt. Charles Koger responded to block off the boat landing, the exact spot where the plant supervisor told the 911 dispatcher the chlorine gas was located.

"We could smell the strong smell of chlorine,” he recalled. “I was feeling somewhat discomfort in my throat, at the time, you know breathing it, sort of like a scratchy type feeling."

Koger said they stayed at the boat landing for about 10 minutes, and then they were asked to block off all of River Road.

Koger said he got really sick, and had to miss work.

"About two days after that, I started developing a cough, being congested,” he said. “Lasted a good week."

He's still upset that Olin did not advise him that he should not be directly in harm's way.

“They should be at the top of their game, but they wasn't,” said Koger. Chlorine gas can be deadly.

It was weaponized during World War I, and has more recently been used as a lethal weapon in the war in Syria.

A material safety data sheet written by Olin said chlorine gas is "irritating to the respiratory system, may cause throat pain and cough."

It even says it can cause heart disease, respiratory disorders, and asthma. The latter is what Reed says she has been dealing with. . "I have asthma now,” she said. Reed and Lt. Koger both agree that Olin should be doing more to ensure first responders and nearby residents are safe. "From what I see, I don't think they care, because no one actually came out and checked after the incident happened to see if anyone was affected,” said Reed.

"Better communication, communication is the key to it all, communication is going to save lives. It will let us know what we're going into, what we need to do as far as the community's concerned. Communication is the whole thing, and we just haven't had that from them,” said Koger.

FOX10 News Investigates asked Olin for an interview multiple times, but we have not yet been granted that opportunity.

Instead, Olin released a written statement to us Wednesday morning, March 22, which reads in full:

“We have carefully examined everything about the Feb. 15 chlorine release event to determine what we could do to keep this from happening again. While we deployed our emergency plan, there were operational procedures that could have been better implemented. We have also begun the installation of additional equipment that will help us improve our operations.We have fixed our issue with the ring-down system and tested it to ensure it is fully functional. When we met with the community members, they suggested we consider some alternative notification methods. We are doing additional benchmarking in this area and are always open to ways to improve. We also met this week with the other plant managers of the industrial park, and we’re discussing ways to better inform the community if incidents occur and educate them on shelter-in-place procedures. We’re also planning additional drills with local area responders to help them be better prepared. We are sorry for the concerns this incident has caused. Safety is our No. 1 priority for our communities in which we operate and for our employees.”

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Investigative Reporter

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