Environmental damage from a fire involving nitric and sulfuric acids at Protech Metal Finishing facility in Vonore, TN, Saturday, remains under investigation, officials said.
The fire completely destroyed the building, fire officials said. In fighting the blaze, firefighters used large amounts of water to battle the fire, and that water carried off the hazardous chemicals into the nearby Little Tennessee River.
“We really don’t know how much water flowed into the river. We do know a large volume of water was used to fight the fire,” said Kevin Eichinger, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on-site coordinator.
The plant uses nitric and sulfuric acids as part of the metal-finishing process, and both likely flowed into the water, he said.
The plant is located northeast of Vonore on the Little Tennessee and downstream from a drinking water intake.
“We don’t believe there is any health concerns to the public. We have been monitoring the water,” said Eichinger, explaining the facility is in an industrial area where there are no residences. “However, the environmental impact is something we are looking into. This is a significant issue.”
Samples of the water have been sent off to a private lab to determine exactly what chemicals ran into the river.
Officials from the EPA and the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation were on site Monday and, Eichinger said, it would take some time before the plant site is completely cleaned up.
He said the city has done a good job by building an earthen berm by a 2,500-foot drainage ditch that flows into the river to prevent more tainted water from flowing into the Little Tennessee, and Protech Metal Finishing has had 35,000 gallons of water pumped from the ditch.
People are being kept away from the site because the building is not structurally sound.
Eichinger said in such cases the company must handle the cleanup expense. EPA and TDEC officials are there for oversight purposes. He said the agencies will soon meet to determine who will oversee the cleanup effort after these first few days.
The state Fire Marshal’s Office is investigating the cause of the blaze.