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People flee as chemical cloud hovers near New Columbia

August 14, 2012

Amanda Friend and her family were forced from their home late Thursday after a toxic acid-spewing Halliburton truck hauling 4,000 gallons of hydrochloric acid pulled into a neighboring convenience store. The Union County, Pennsylvania incident involving fracking chemicals stunned residents and emergency responders alike, reported the Daily Item:

“There was a huge plume in the air and it was just getting bigger and bigger,” Friend said Friday, several hours after the incident at the Short Stop Market parking lot in White Deer Township, Union County.

It was about 10:20 p.m. Thursday when Gregory Pellicer Jr., 28, of Lawton, Okla., noticed a cloud billowing behind the Halliburton Energy Services tanker he was driving east on Route 80 as he and co-driver Nicklaus Cunningham, 38, of Semmes, Ala., were headed from Homer City to Montrose, state police at Milton said.

Pellicer pulled off the highway and into the Short Stop Mart parking lot off Route 15 and he and Cunningham immediately began working to contain the leak, police said.

State Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Kevin Sunday said an estimated 250 gallons leaked out and soil tests are being done to determine if there was any contamination.

“It’s an acid and it could be very damaging to humans and the environment,” he said.

Marcia Moore and John Finnerty of the Daily Item reported on August 13th that Halliburton spokesman Susie McMichael confirmed the company was transporting hydrochloric acid for “drilling and production support services.” It is not clear what if any penalties Halliburton will receive. Impacts were dramatic as terrified employees and residents fled the growing toxic cloud. At least five homes were evacuated:

According to the police report, once the acid hits the air it vaporizes, causing a toxic gaseous cloud.

White Deer EMA Director Larry Maynard said fearful store employees fled…

Soon after the Halliburton truck pulled into the store parking lot, Robert Friend was going to his parked car to lock it up for the night when he  saw the activity next door, his wife said.

Amanda Friend said her husband, a former environmental services employee who is familiar with hazardous material cleanup procedures, noticed a cloud surrounding the gasoline pumps and saw the truck drivers placing ash on the ground and figured the leak involved acid.

“He called 911 and then woke me up,” she said, describing her fear when she saw the cloud of what she thought was smoke grow larger in the night sky. “I thought the gas station was on fire and would blow up.”

She roused her two sleeping children, ages 5 and 8, as White Deer and Milton fire department volunteers evacuated their home and four others nearby. Other area homeowners were told to keep their windows and doors closed.

 “When we leaving, the cloud was moving over the school,” Friend said.

An experienced firefighter commented that this was the most hair-raising incident he’s responded to. At times the toxic cloud grew so thick that emergency responders couldn’t even see the convenience store:

With more than four decades of experience as a firefighter in White Deer, Maynard has seen his share of floods, thunderstorms and fires.

But he said none were quite as hair-raising as Thursday’s incident.

“This is the worst thing we’ve ever had to deal with,” Maynard said. “We are using to getting our feet wet, but this was a different situation.”

Pellicer, the driver of the Halliburton truck, “didn’t know where he was and he was just looking for a place to park,” Maynard said. “Unfortunately, he ended up here.”

Since Route 80 crosses White Deer Township, the fire department staff has worked carefully and rigorously to prepare for just this sort of emergency.

“If you want a shock, just park along I-80 and watch what goes by,” Maynard said.

“We’ve (trained) for this many times. It felt just like a drill,” he said. “But it was real.”

Emergency officials worry that accidents involving trucks carrying hazardous materials on the interstate could have an accident that would threaten residents who live in the township. In this case, the truck driver left I-80 and drove almost right into town.

Fortunately, Maynard said the wind Thursday night was blowing west and carried the cloud away from the village.

Later, when emergency crews had set up to monitor the situation a short distance away as DEP, and a hazmat crew from Halliburton and Northridge Group Inc. worked to stop the leak and move the truck from the scene and transfer the remaining contents to another vehicle, they could see the thick gas cloud hanging in the air.

At times, the cloud grew so thick, Maynard said, he could not even tell the convenience store was there.

Who ever thought that trucking massive amounts of toxic acid, in order to extract a greenhouse gas that’s worse for climate than any other fossil fuel, was a good idea to begin with?

Halliburton thought it was a great idea. Halliburton wrote the federal fracking exemptions now called the Halliburton Loophole into law in 2005, championed by former Halliburton CEO Dick Cheney, the U.S. Vice President in 2005. Now we have Halliburton trucks spilling toxic clouds into Pennsylvania towns. Surely Halliburton will actually bragging about this incident very soon, issuing press releases about how professionally they handled it, even while mothers in New Columbia wait for DEP to test the soil at the school to find out whether or not it’s safe to send their children back to school. Not to mention that when the cloud moved away from the town, it didn’t vanish–hydrochloric acid is dangerous to all humans and all living things. Read the full story here.

Then, if you haven’t done so this week, call your state representative and state senator in Pennsylvania to call on them to support a statewide moratorium on fracking. Drilling isn’t safe (for folks that breathe air or drink water, that is).
One Comment
  1. DJ Robinson permalink
    August 15, 2012 3:24 pm

    Thanks for posting this. I grew up about 5 miles from that Short Stop. I used to drive past it almost everyday. Here is some more perspective on the immediate area.

    This store is maybe 1 – 1.5 miles from the West Branch of the Susquehanna. I believe there is a stream that flows right behind it, and it is directly across from the Elementary school mentioned in the article.

    Sadly just up the road is a failed Bio-Diesel company.

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