Chemical alert in Southwold

FRUSTRATED traders in Southwold are todaycounting the cost after the High Street was sealed off when a tractor and trailer shed its load of fertiliser.

FRUSTRATED traders in Southwold are todaycounting the cost after the High Street was sealed off when a tractor and trailer shed its load of fertiliser.

A police investigation is now under way after granules of the fertiliser, believed to be ammonium nitrate, were dropped along a 30 metre stretch of the road at around 9.30am on Saturday.

Insp Martin Barnes-Smith of Suffolk Constabulary said last night:"The cause of the spillage is currently being investigated by traffic officers from Halesworth Traffic Unit who will look into any offences that may have been committed in relation to the carrying of the load on the vehicle."

The clean-up operation hit traders on what should have been one of the busiest days of the year so far and the operation lasted until 3.50pm.

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Fire officers worked to clear the spillage but efforts were hampered by the granules creating dust which then became airborne.

Fishmonger John Huggins who also owns Special Occasions, a flower and gift shop in the High Street said: "Obviously, trade has been very poor all day. I'm just appalled really at how long this has taken to sort out and the thing that is making people so angry is nobody's being told.

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"At the end of the day, it's our best day of the week. The fact we have got such a lovely weekend, the first really good weekend of the year weather wise, we should be really busy but we have not been."

Police, the fire service, ambulance crews, a consultant doctor from the James Paget hospital in Gorleston, the Environment Agency, the Highways Agency and Waveney District Council's environmental health department were all in attendance.

Louise Noller, supervisor at the Sutherland House restaurant in the town's High Street, said she had come across the spillage as she drove up the road.

"It was all slippery and horrible. It was pandemonium out there," she added.

Mike Chappell, of Market Garden in Market Square, said traders had geared up for a good weekend.

"We should have been a really good day today. It's all gone pear-shaped really. You can see the tumbleweed going down the High Street."

Sarah Honeywood, of the Black Olive delicatessen said: "We were geared up for a fabulous weekend. "It has been very frustrating - massively."

Stephen Hook, of Lowestoft, who works in the town, was bemused by the operation. I think they are making too much fuss about something that's not that serious really."

One woman shop assistant who tried to sweep up the mess was taken to James Paget as a precaution, and three other people were treated at the scene for irritation to the hands and face.

Householders and shopkeepers were advised to keep their windows and doors closed as a precaution, and stay inside.

Although used every day on farms, the fertiliser can cause skin irritation, and if inhaled the dust can cause respiratory problems.

Initially, shopkeepers tried to sweep up the debris from the road, causing dust to enter the air, but were then told to stop and the area was cleared.

People living and working along the High Street were told to go inside as fightfighters with breathing apparatus swept the fertiliser up into wheelie bins which were taken by lorry to be safely disposed.

A total of nine fire crews were called to the scene, including firefighters from Lowestoft, Halesworth Wrentham and Haverhill.

The remaining dust was washed off the street into gulleys which were blocked to prevent the polluted water entering the Buss Creek water course because of Environment Agency concerns that it might kill the fish. The water in the gulleys was then sucked up into a tanker and taken away to a designated site to be safely disposed.

Andrew Reynolds, principle environmental health office at Waveney District Council was at the scene.

"Ammonium nitrate is used every day on farms as a fertiliser. However, if it is not handled correctly it can prove a very serious hazard from the inhalation of the dust. It's an oxidising agent which means although it does not burn itself, it can cause other substances to burst into flames," he explained.

"It's a hazardous chemical, there's no two ways about that, but that's not to say it's dangerous as it is now because it is all under control."

Bridget Marr, environment office with the Environment Agency, said their concern was that it should not enter Buss Creek, but luckily it was not raining so there was nothing to push it into the gulleys.

"From our point of view, it would be toxic to the fish in the water course," she said. "It is not a problem as it stands because it has been contained and that's down to the fire service on site knowing not to wash it down. They have done a very good job."

Assistant Divisional Officer with Suffolk Fire Service Henry Landisssaid that crews cordoned off the town centre because the dust from the fertiliser was an irritant. They estimated there was about 250kg of it.

"What was happening was people were slipping on the granules and we got called in at that point. There were local shopkeepers using brooms and sweeping the road," he said.

Dr Victor Inyang, a consultant at James Paget Hospital who was at the scene, said he had only dealt with relatively minor complaints of skin irritation to hands or face.

"Those with the irritation to the face and hands have just been washed and got rid of the chemical as best we can."

Acting Insp Richard Lane of Suffolk Constabulary said: "Unfortunately we have had to block the road. Everybody is very understanding, but obviously there is some concern about how much it is going to cost the town centre shops."

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