Procter and Gamble employees were evacuated Tuesday morning from the Mehoopany plant on Tuesday, following a ‘chlorine spill’ that occurred at the facility.
The spill was a simulation of a possible emergency situation that could occur at the plant, and the a drill to test P&G’s emergency response system.
According to Public Relations Manager Alex Fried, the chlorine spill simulation - known as a Community Awareness and Emergency Response drill - is held at the plant every three years as required by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations.
The reason for a chlorine simulation, Fried explained, is because the plant uses large quantities of it to treat water drawn from the Susquehanna River, which in turn is used in the manufacturing process. Chlorine is also used to treat the plant’s portable water system and its sewage treatment plant.
Fried could not provide exact figures on how much chlorine is used at the P&G plant, but did say it receives it in 2,000-pound containers.
Many years ago, he continued, when the plant utilized a pulp mill to manufacture raw cellulose, the chlorine and other chemicals were shipped in on 80-100 ton railcars. In those days, when a drill was held, the affected area was three miles, and included the Mehoopany Elementary School.
Now, Fried said, the simulation is for a 2,000-pound chlorine spill, and the affected area has been cut back to the plant and the land adjacent to it.
An alarm sounded around 9:30 a.m., and plant employees left the facility, heading to designated safe areas. Fried said that chlorine is heavier than air, so people are instructed to go to elevated areas to get above the gas, should it escape.
One glitch occurs during the drill. A general alarm is suppose to sound, alerting all plant employees to leave the facility. But the general alarm malfunctions, and as a result only a handful of people leave the premises.
Fried explained that there are other ways in place to notify all the employees about the situation if the emergency had been real.
If the evacuation had been full scale, many of the employees were have headed across state Route 87 to even higher ground as a safety precaution.
Smiplex, the alarm company which provides service at the P&G plant, was already working on the faulty alarm shortly after the simulation was over.
Fried said that the alarm had worked correctly during its quarterly test back in July. But this is one of the reasons why the simulation is held.
Also participating in the simulation was the Wyoming County Emergency Management Agency, along with Mehoopany and Meshoppen fire departments and the Triton Hose Company. The state police are also available, along with an emergency unit from Tyler Memorial Hospital, the Meshoppen police and Washington Township.
Plant personnel who are ‘injured’ during the event reported to a hazmat team located at the Apple Tree Orchard parking lot, explaining what happened to them when the ‘spill’ occurred. Some - including a couple of dummies - are transported via ambulance to Tyler for ‘treatment.’
Fried said that those transported to the hospital may be subject to a special bath as part of the decontamination procedure.
The all-clear signal is eventually sounded, and plant personnel returned to the facility around 10:30 a.m.
Fried said the closest the P&G plant came to a real emergency was in May 2012 when a small chlorine spill occurred. However, it was quickly contained and a full-scale evacuation was unnecessary.