by Valerie Verkamp
A chemical reaction at the MGP Ingredient plant caused a large plume with a pungent odor to erupt over downtown Atchison, Kan. Friday morning.
“It was choking us out,” Corie Dunn, of Atchison, said of the emissions venting into the air near 10th and Commercial Streets. “I thought it was a fire, so I sent my drone to investigate the scene. The downtown area became so covered with gas that I could not get the drone back to where it took off.”
Dunn said he quickly jumped into his truck in search of a safer location to successfully land his drone. That's when he encountered a local police officer directing traffic away from the billowing gas.
“The officer was standing out there without a gas mask on,” said Dunn. “My friend, who owns a T-shirt shop, grabbed a brand-new T-shirt off his shelf and took it to the officer to cover his face.
“We didn't know what we were breathing. It smelled like chlorine, but 10 times stronger than any swimming pool.”
During the chaos, Dunn said his high school age children called frantically.
“They were told to exit the building, but the gas was too strong outside, so they reentered the school. Then (the school) decided to evacuate. They loaded them up in buses,” said Dunn. “Half were taken to the Walmart parking lot and the other half were taken to the Amelia Earhart Airport.”
Dunn said his 10-year-old son, who attends elementary school just several miles northwest of MGP, was not evacuated.
“Some were handed medical masks, but there were not enough masks to go around.”
Over the next 24 hours, more than 100 people sought medical attention, mostly suffering from respiratory related issues related to the gas. Thirty of those injured were sent to regional hospitals, where their condition could be monitored for a minimum of six hours.
Two calls for EMS services occurred overnight.
Atchison County Emergency Management notified the public at about 9:45 a.m. Friday on Facebook and urged residents to immediately seek shelter. Non-residents were asked to avoid the affected area altogether.
On social media, Atchison Hospital urged anyone having difficulty breathing, shortness of breath or wheezing to seek immediate medical attention. Those with minor irritations including, sore throat, headache and nasal congestion, were advised to take Benadryl and stay indoors.
“It was a thick fog over the downtown area,” Trey Cocking, Atchison city manager said at a press conference at noon in Atchison. “As it moved west, Kansas Highway Patrol followed it with their helicopters and they informed us it had dissipated.”
Cocking said the reaction was caused Friday morning at about 8 a.m. when a chemical was delivered to MGP Ingredients at 1300 Main Street and dumped into the wrong cylinder.
Officials confirmed the chemical emission was chlorine gas at 6:30 pm on Friday. The severity of exposure to chlorine gas seems to vary depending on the duration and concentration of the gas. A fact sheet released by city officials reveals chlorine gas affects the respiratory airways and the eyes.
Cocking said MGP routinely receives deliveries of chemical agents, which are used in the distilling of alcohol products and the processing of food ingredients.
Authorities were called to the scene just after the chemical reaction transpired. First responders from the Atchison Fire Department, officers with the Kansas Highway Patrol and agents of the Union Pacific Railroad assisted with the chemical spill.
“As we arrived on the scene, we encountered a large plume of smoke, extending to the north part of the city and to the west,” Fire Chief Ted Graf said. “Our initial concern was to cordon off those areas to keep pedestrian and vehicle traffic out of those areas. Also, we evacuated some of the immediate areas that were affected.”
The fire department sprayed a large amount of water to break down the plume.
“Once we started applying water, we started to see the plume dissipate,” said Graf. “However, the atmospheric conditions today, kept the plume low to the ground where it did a slow roll until it dissipated on the outskirts of town.”
Crews continued assessing the air quality in and around densely populated areas even after the plume had dispelled.
“We are very fortunate that there were not more injuries,” said Graf. “Fortunately, we had a bunch of agencies come together. We are very pleased so far with how everybody came together to try to mitigate this situation.”
As the plume had the potential of drifting further west, at least one school district on the Missouri side--Buchanan County at Faucett-- reacted with a lockdown of students. North Platte School District in northern Platte County was not in class on Friday due to parent-teacher conference so no action was needed by the school.
Steve Pickman, a spokesperson for MGP, said the chemical reaction did not cause significant damage to the plant or any other MGP facility. Pickman thanked local firefighters, law enforcement and hospital workers for their support.
“MGP Ingredients has reported the event to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Kansas and local authorities, and is cooperating fully with the investigation and ensure that all appropriate response actions are taken,” wrote Pickman.
The company has also solicited outside experts to assist with the on-going investigation.
But this doesn't provide much reassurance for those still haunted by the images of the plume. Dunn said he is more worried about a repeat occurrence.
“I would like to see the company either more outside of the city limits or pay the cost to provide personal protective equipment for each person in the community,” said Dunn. “What if the gas was more lethal than what they said?”