Fire at Chemical Facility Forces Officials into Quick Decisions

The chemists on hand said putting the fire out fast was paramount, despite the risk that using fire hoses would cause the chemicals to run off. They advised that the nitric acid could explode from the heat of the fire.

by Steven Henshaw, Reading Eagle, Pa. / June 12, 2019

(TNS) — A three-alarm fire Monday at the Bulk Chemical Inc. facility on Mohrsville Road in Perry Township, Pa., exacerbated worry about the environmental impact of a spill of thousands of gallons of nitric acid late Sunday, a fire official said Tuesday.

"Because of the fire and us putting water on it, it created more of a hazardous environment because now we're washing out more of the nitric acid and any other chemicals that might have been present," Chief Rusty Wagner of Shoemakersville Fire Company said.

Fire officials had to decide quickly how to attack the fire and whether to evacuate nearby homes for the second time in 12 hours, he said.

Fortunately, they didn't need a company phone directory. Senior company officials and chemists were on hand, supervising the cleanup and providing firefighters with a report detailing the chemicals in the plant.

The chemists advised that putting the fire out quickly was paramount, despite the risk that using fire hoses would cause the chemicals to run off, Wagner explained. They advised the nitric acid could explode from the heat of the fire.

"We quickly decided we couldn't go in there because we knew there were chemicals in there," Wagner said. "So we did an exterior attack."

Wagner gave the evacuation order soon after. Emergency personnel went door to door around 11 a.m. Monday morning, telling residents they had to leave their homes just 3 1/2 hours after they had returned from a night spent in the emergency shelter at Shoemakersville Fire Company, a Hamburg-area hotel or the homes of friends or relatives.

Firefighters set up a temporary dam to keep water from flowing into storm drains and the Schuylkill River, which runs parallel to Mohrsville Road.

The Berks County Department of Emergency Services sent its hazardous materials response team to assist in containing the spill.

Residents were cleared to return to their homes about 7 p.m. Monday, but flaggers were still directing traffic on Mohrsville in front of Bulk Chemical property Tuesday as the cleanup resumed.

John Repetz, a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection, said reports from DEP personnel on the scene were that most of the water run-off from the Bulk Chemical property, and the chemicals themselves, were contained to the site.

"Other than one little grassy spot next to the road, everything was contained to the site," he said.

The county hazmat team left the scene Monday night after the situation was turned over to environmental contractors for the ongoing cleanup, said Brian Gottschall, county emergency services director.

Repetz said contractors brought in vacuum trucks Tuesday morning to suck up water that pooled behind the containment berms.

DEP will continue to monitor outflow of a nearby storm drain into the river to make sure no chemicals are leaking off the site.

Wagner said officials won't know the extent of damage or the precise cause of the fire until the environmental cleanup is completed inside the building.

Wagner said the fire company trains to deal with chemical fires. Unlike the personnel on the hazmat teams, they're not outfitted with fully encapsulated chemical suits.

"We make our decision on how much we can do" at such a fire, Wagner said, based on the chemicals involved and the equipment the department has to protect its firefighters.

In their primary response area, fire companies know exactly what hazardous chemicals are stored on site by local companies, but in the daily operations, companies can move those chemicals around.

"That's where the facility managers help us out with how much they have in any one area," he said.

Contact Steven Henshaw: 610-371-5024 or


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