Elgin chemical spill shut down I-20 near Columbia

ELGIN — A spill of toxic chemicals from a factory in Kershaw County led to the evacuation of residents and the closure of a major highway for four hours on July 27.

Local fire crews and hazmat crews worked to contain the nitric acid leak at the WeylChem plant while nearby residents were evacuated, Elgin Mayor Melissa Emmons said. The spill happened around 6 p.m. when workers were unable to close a valve, she said.

Authorities only learned of the leak after receiving reports of a cloud of steam floating over Interstate 20, Kershaw County Fire Chief Will Glover said.

The spill at the plant, just along the busy freeway that stretches from Aiken to Florence, has forced the evacuation of the freeway and the closure of a 10-mile stretch of I-20 . The lanes reopened shortly after 10 p.m.

There were no immediate reports of injuries, Glover said. Fire crews were seen spraying hoses high in the air at the plant to suppress fumes. No fires were reported.

Nitric acid is a colorless liquid that is toxic to inhale and can cause skin and eye irritation, according to the National Institutes of Health. The acid, which produces red-brown fumes, is used to make explosives, fertilizers and dyes.

Authorities said the leak included a mixture of other chemicals made at the plant, but no details were released.

“If you can taste it, you know it’s in the air,” said Kelley Yopp, a worker at The White Pond Food Beverage Stop about a mile from the plant, which closed as a precaution.

Shortly after 8 p.m., Glover said the leak was under control at the plant 25 miles northeast of downtown Columbia. Firefighters worked in nearly 90 degree heat until late in the evening.

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It is not known how many residents were evacuated after the spill. No one was in a shelter set up at Lugoff-Elgin High School. Residents were allowed to return home around 10 p.m. Authorities were also monitoring livestock on farms near the plant, Glover said.

Part of the plant will be closed after the leak, WeylChem said.

WeylChem Chemicals

Fire crews respond to a toxic chemical release at the WeylChem plant in Elgin, about 25 miles from downtown Columbia, on July 27. Some residents were evacuated and all lanes of Interstate 20 were closed.

“We will not be bringing the unit back online until we complete a full investigation and understand the source of the problem,” the company said in a statement provided to WIS.

WeylChem did not provide any details of the spill, calling it only an “incident”.

The maker of specialty chemicals used in pharmaceuticals, flavor enhancers, herbicides and pesticides employs 125 workers, according to Central SC Alliance, an economic development organization.

WeylChem, a Germany-based company, was fined $500,000 in 2013 for a series of pollution violations at its manufacturing and wastewater treatment facilities in Elgin, according to a press release from the company. ‘Environmental Protection Agency. Violations included improper management of hazardous waste and excessive emissions of air pollutants and discharges of sewage into the Wateree River.

The company agreed to install improved leak tests based on the results of an audit. WeylChem was also banned from trucking sewage from the Elgin plant to the Lugoff treatment facility and discharging the sewage into the Wateree River.

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The company was also fined a total of $50,790 in five SC Department of Health and Environmental Control orders from 2013 to 2018, online records show. Violations included failure to properly label hazardous waste containers, transferring hazardous waste out of leaking containers, and failing to maintain air pollution control equipment.

WeylChem invested $4 million last December to expand the 55-year-old facility with a new research and development lab.

Elgin recently made headlines as the epicenter of a swarm of 70 earthquakes since Christmas, although none of the quakes were strong enough to cause major damage. The town of 1,600 was holding a question-and-answer session with earthquake and emergency experts when the chemical leak occurred.

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Contact Leah Hincks at 843-830-2555. Follow her on Twitter @LeahHincks

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