Fumes leak causes major alert

SCORES of firefighters battled to avert a potential environmental disaster yesterday after toxic fumes swept across parts of a Suffolk town and boiling chemicals threatened to burst from overheating factory tanks.

By James Mortlock

SCORES of firefighters battled to avert a potential environmental disaster yesterday after toxic fumes swept across parts of a Suffolk town and boiling chemicals threatened to burst from overheating factory tanks.

Police told hundreds of people living close to the Sudbury detergents plant that sparked the alert -involving more than 1,000 litres of a hazardous liquid which was likened to DDT by experts - to stay indoors and keep their windows shut.

Anyone feeling unwell was urged to drink water, wash for 15 minutes and seek medical advice but, despite reports of a strong smell of disinfectant across Sudbury, there were no cases of illness caused by the leak.

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The Antec International site on the Chilton Industrial Estate, which makes disinfectants used to sterilise operating equipment, was sealed off along with a vast area of the eastern part of Sudbury after the alert.

Cars and pedestrians were kept out of the cordoned-off area throughout the afternoon as fire crews in breathing gear and special decontamination suits pumped the eight tanks with water to cool the boiling chemicals inside.

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The alarm was raised just after 10.30am by a member of the public mowing grass close to the factory. Almost seven hours later, fire chiefs said the danger of the chemical - xylenol - spilling from the decomposing drums had eased but crews were expected to continue the crucial cooling operation through the night.

Today investigations into what triggered the factory's giant oven to overheat will be launched by the firm and the Health and Safety Executive while experts from the fire service will look at whether any lessons can be learned from what happened.

The drama unfolded after the drums, which are kept at a steady 50C, overheated to a dangerous 150C. Early indications suggest the problem at the plant, which is closed on Sundays, was caused by a technical fault.

Incident commander, Divisional Officer Paul Collins, who led eight crews from across Suffolk, said any spillage from the tanks would have posed a “fundamental risk to the environment” and he stressed his priority was to halt the corrosion which caused the fumes to leak.

“When we got here the tanks were superheated and had started to fume off - that smell alerted the gardener - but it is the liquid which is deadly from an environmental point of view and if it gets into the watercourse we would have a serious situation on our hands.”

Mr Collins, who also called in a chemicals expert, said almost 40 decontamination suits were used by the teams of firefighters involved in the operation to cool the drums and put out a fire in wooden pallets beneath them. By 7pm they moved the drums to a secure area using forklift trucks and the incident was declared under control.

However, he stressed that but for the quick-witted gardener the situation could have been far worse.

“If the drums had carried on superheating it could have had catastrophic consequences for the environment,” he said.

The fire chief praised the 72 officers involved in the operation: “It's been a very successful operation from our point of view - the situation has been controlled. We had the advantage of knowing exactly what chemical we were dealing with from the outset.”

Alan Martin, from the Environment Agency, said the main threat was the chemical polluting the area's watercourse. “This will kill most aquatic life but more worryingly this chemical is a bio accumulator - when it gets out there it stays out there. It's a bit like DDT,” he said.

“We have blocked off the drains that lead to the watercourse and we are providing advice for the fire brigade but at the moment this has been contained within the factory.”

Dean Stockford, who manages the plant, said he was pleased serious damage to the environment had been averted and pledged a full investigation into what happened.

Sgt Andrew Mason, who led the police operation to warn residents of the fumes danger, said hundreds of people had been advised to stay inside their homes and shut their windows.

He said the wind was blowing from the south west, which meant the path of the fumes was mainly over industrial sites, which are closed on a Sunday.

However, he said while there were no evacuations, residents in Waldingfield Road and the Woodlands area were alerted by officers on foot and loud-haler patrols and an area of two square kilometres was cordoned off and out-of-town superstores, fast-food restaurants and petrol stations were closed.

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