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Toxic leak prompts evacuation of 4,000

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    Mrityunjay Singh

    Heartland Refinery blows a gasket in a power outage

    Tuesday, December 15, 2009 2:59 AM
    By Dave Hendricks and Martin Rozenman

    Heartland Petroleum officials say they’re working on plans to prevent another toxic gas leak such as the one that caused the evacuation of 4,000 people from the refinery’s East Side neighborhood yesterday morning.

    “There has never been an event like that (before) with Heartland refining,” Heartland Chief Financial Officer Brad Lambert said. “It’s important to note that this occurred because of a power outage. If the outage had not occurred, this would not have happened.”

    The power failure “initiated our restart process,” Lambert said, causing “a gasket to blow.”

    Diane McGuire, a spokeswoman for American Electric Power, said a squirrel tripped a breaker at 7:53 a.m.

    “But it wasn’t a sustained outage,” she said. “The breaker reset itself within five to 10 seconds.”

    The hydrogen-sulfide leak came from Heartland’s motor-oil recycling plant at 4001 E. 5th Ave. Police closed E. 5th between Stelzer and Hamilton roads while firefighters investigated.

    “I think it was a very successful outcome for what it could have been when you’re dealing with hydrogen, especially since there was a vapor cloud when we got there,” said Columbus Division of Fire Battalion Chief David Whiting.

    No residences were evacuated, he said, but numerous workers from area businesses were. They were allowed to return after 4 p.m., he said.

    Heartland hopes to resume operations by the end of the week, Lambert said.

    Firefighters arrived at the refinery shortly after 8 a.m. Three people were treated for minor symptoms at the scene, and one person was taken to Ohio State University Medical Center, according to a Division of Fire release.

    The refinery is between Port Columbus and Defense Supply Center, Columbus, which distributes spare parts for military weapons.

    Police had reopened 5th Avenue by 2 p.m.

    How much hydrogen sulfide, considered an air toxin, was released could not be determined, said Erin Strouse, a spokeswoman for the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency.

    Heartland is “still investigating,” Lambert said. “It is important to note that OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration), the fire department and the EPA turned the plant back over to us. … I think in the next couple of days, we’ll have more hard data.”

    Hydrogen sulfide dissipates quickly when released into the atmosphere and doesn’t cause long-term contamination, said Michael Bisesi, an associate professor of environmental health sciences at Ohio State University.

    Exposure to a high concentration could cause eye irritation or respiratory problems and, in rare cases with a high enough exposure, death.

    Lambert said Heartland is “working with AEP to get on a better grid” to prevent further power outages.

    Heartland’s plant removes sulfur and other chemicals from motor oil so it can be used again. Hydrogen sulfide is created during the process that separates sulfur from the oil.

    EPA files show that 16 odor complaints have been filed against Heartland since February.


    Paul Orlowski
    Co-founder and Community Builder

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