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Toxic Gas Leak in South Carolina

August 2, 1986

Undated (AP) _ Lightning struck a tank of hydrochloric acid in South Carolina on Friday, sending a corrosive cloud into the air and forcing the evacuation of more than 500 people, while five workers were sickened by a leak of cleaning solvent in California.

More than 200 employees were evacuated from Applied Solar Energy Corp. in City of Industry, Calif., as officials feared toxic arsine gas had leaked. The fumes, however, were determined to have come from alcohol solvents and the plant was reopened.

The entire town of Chapin, S.C., was evacuated after hydrochloric acid escaped from a tank containing 12,000 gallons of the material at the Suffolk Chemical Co., authorities said. Three people were injured in the accident, including one who was struck by lightning and was hospitalized in stable condition. The other two were treated and released.

Annie Wessinger, whose home is about a half-mile from the plant, saw the cloud of acid.

″It just came over in rolls and rolls. ... I couldn’t see the ... house (next door),″ she said.

″It just looked like a big fog cloud,″ said Harold Cumalander, who lives less than 500 yards from the plant. He estimated the cloud was about as large as a football field.

A diluted form of hydrochloric acid leaked for about 20 minutes before the company was able to stop it, said Chapin Fire Chief Bill Ziegler. He said he did not know how much of the chemical leaked out.

The fire chief said he did not know when residents would be allowed to return to their homes about 20 miles northwest of Columbia.

Tom Sammons, an environmental quality manager at the Department of Health and Environmental Control, said the spilled acid ″is corrosive and can cause skins burns and respiratory problems.″

The plant has been sharply criticized because of past chemical leaks and spills, and hearings are being held by the state Department of Health and Environmental Control on whether to enforce its order to shut down the plant.

In the City of Industry leak, five Applied Solar employees were treated at a hospital for vomiting, eye irritation and breathing difficulties and were released.

The company uses toxic arsine gas in the production of solar cells and assumed worst-case precautions when the employees complained of an odor, said Erik Monsen, the company’s director of safety.

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