At 7:30 a.m. Friday, a leaking vat of hydrochloric acid caused West Main Street to be closed as low-lying clouds of caustic vapor drifted across roads and between businesses in the mostly industrial area.
The acid fumes at concentrations above 25% become hydrogen chloride gas, forming dense white vapors due to condensation with atmospheric moisture.
The acid in the tank was estimated to be around 30% and caused thick, white vapor to form in the area. Sedalia Fire Department Capt. Daniel Shaw told the Democrat they got lucky for two reasons.
“The wind direction was in our favor and actually took it across Main Street into an open field rather than a neighboring business,” Shaw said. “The containment system that is designed around that type of storage tank did its job and prevented the product from expanding.”
Sedalia Fire alerted the Columbia Fire Department early of the leaking acid as Columbia is better prepared for dealing with spills of this nature.
“Columbia Fire Department has a higher level of hazmat expertise,” Shaw said. “We put them in a pre-alert state so that if we arrived and found that we were in need of a higher level than we were able to provide, we had those resources at least on standby.”
Sedalia firefighters took the first steps to cordon off the area and evacuated the adjacent properties to make sure everybody was safe before they started working toward rectifying the leak.
The business, MPW Industrial Services, 3205 W. Main St., advised the fire department it had a third-party business available to come out and draw off the acid into a tanker truck, but that would take several hours. The decision was made to pump water into the acid tank to dilute the acid below 15%, which kept the escaping acid from further vaporizing into the atmosphere.
“Our biggest concern was a free-flowing acid,” Shaw said. “That isn't something that we have materials readily available to handle or the level of personal protection equipment.”
Weather was also a factor in dealing with the caustic clouds of hydrogen chloride gas.
“There was a potential for wind change and we wanted to make sure that we got that vapor cloud under control before the wind changed,” Shaw said. “The gear that we wear isn't that great as far as respiratory protection. We would prefer to have a higher level of protection than what is typical structural firefighting gear.”
Sedalia firefighters are trained on how to assess hazardous materials situations and know how to safely remedy the dangerous leak.
“At our level, the awareness is all about recognition,” Shaw said. “Being able to recognize what was going on and what kind of product we're dealing with and then operations is really to prevent the incident from getting worse.”
Shaw noted the majority of vapor had dispersed by early afternoon and adjoining businesses were allowed to reopen.
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