Water treatment plant employees in New Baltimore, Michigan, were caught by surprise last month when they averted an unprecedented chemical disaster that could have poisoned thousands of city residents.
Anyone who’s had a chemistry class knows the dangers of sulfuric acid, but imagine if a chemical company’s mishap landed the acid in your city’s water supply.
Needless to say, it could be disastrous if not caught in time. Thankfully for the 14,000 residents of New Baltimore, it was.
“There are some mistakes that are not allowed to happen and this is a mistake they are not allowed to make,” plant superintendent Chris Hiltunen said, speaking of the employees, according to WJBK-TV.
Detroit-based company PVS Chemicals, which supplies chemical additives (like fluoride to promote healthy teeth) used by the New Baltimore treatment plant and other locations, typically hands over 55-gallon drums of chemicals that are added to the city’s water supply after being mixed into a day tank.
But workers noticed something different this time.
“As soon as he turned that pump on to transfer the chemical into the day tank, there was a pretty substantial reaction, created some heat, some mist,” Hiltunen said, referring to an unidentified employee. “He shut it down and left the room.”
“It was the most aggressive thing I had ever seen chemical-wise,” he said.
As it turned out, four 55-gallon drums that had been delivered to the plant, slapped with the “fluoride” label, actually contained 93 percent sulfuric acid, the outlet reported.
At such a high concentration, this acid can be deadly.
It’s typically used to produce “other chemicals, explosives and glue,” so many of us are likely more familiar with the acid than we realize, particularly if we work in certain industries. However, it can be toxic under specific conditions (depending on how long or concentrated someone’s exposure to the substance is).
Suffice to say, if this mix-up hadn’t been caught in its tracks, we might be breaking a far more tragic story.
“We had isolated all the valves, shut the tank off, the room was isolated,” Hiltunen said. “At that point, I called [the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy].”
According to WJBK, the EGLE issued a statement notifying water systems that use chemicals for treatment to seek alternative suppliers since they are “no longer authorized” to order or add those acquired from PVS Chemicals under the Michigan Safe Drinking Water Act.
But PVS Chemicals President David Nicholson fired back in his own statement, saying “PVS was never ‘stripped’ of our certification and at no time has it ever been, or is it now, illegal or improper to use our chemicals in any water application. All statements to the contrary are false.”
According to PVS, the company “accounted for all the drums involved in the incident” and is “certain” that no other mislabeled drums are circulating about.
Though it seems like a fleeting incident, the potential catastrophe should horrify us all — especially those who could’ve been affected.
Who’s to say this couldn’t happen someplace else? Rest assured, it’s highly unlikely, but we could only hope we’d have such vigilant plant employees to watch out for us in other cities.
“It could have been a fatal catastrophe it really could have,” Hiltunen said, according to WJBK.
Thankfully, because someone happened to notice this (hopefully) isolated incident, that catastrophe was prevented.
Truth and Accuracy
We are committed to truth and accuracy in all of our journalism. Read our editorial standards.