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Residents Return After Acid Spill

July 9, 1989

POPLAR BLUFF, Mo. (AP) _ About 500 residents returned to their homes early Sunday after being evacuated for several hours when a nitric acid leak sent a vapor cloud over a wide area.

The leak in a containment tank at a construction site in southern Poplar Bluff was discovered by a security guard at 8:45 p.m. Saturday. The evacuations were ordered when authorities feared wind might carry fumes from the acid to residents’ homes.

The leak was caused by a loose fitting in the 4,000-gallon tank at the site, where a factory is under construction, said Hercell Williams, Civil Defense director.

Workers put lime on the acid to neutralize it, and the evacuations were called off about 6 a.m. Sunday, Williams said.

The tank had been filled Friday, and workers were transferring 1,500 gallons from the outside tank to another tank inside the plant when the leak occurred, a plant spokesman said.

The guard who discovered the leak, Sam Cole, 34, was in stable condition Sunday at Doctor’s Regional Medical Center. No other injuries were reported.

In an interview at the hospital, Cole said he was finishing his second round of the nearly completed factory when ″I noticed a steam coming out of the ground outside. It looked like something bubbling out of the concrete.″

Cole said the vapors smelled like battery acid.

″I got a pretty good hit, backed off and just fell down,″ Cole said. ″It burned my throat and I started coughing. I was OK until I lit a cigarette. That made me dizzy and got the dry heaves.″

Ron Sheeley, an environmental emergency specialist with the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, said that nitric acid is extremely corrosive.

″It’s corrosive to the skin, and the fumes are noxious and can cause tissue damage,″ Sheeley said. ″It can react to other substances that burn.

Most residents in the area left willingly and planned to stay with friends and relatives.

But at the C & W Corral Lounge, owner Brenda Brown said, ″When we learned of the spill we called the police and they said for us to evacuate the bar.

″All of the customers left quickly except for two who wanted to be locked inside the bar. They finished their beers before leaving.″

Poplar Bluff, a city of about 20,000, is 160 miles south of St. Louis.

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