A shelter-in-place order forced Rochester, PA, residents inside after a chemical fire broke out and then rekindled at a former manufacturing facility Friday and Saturday morning.
Residents in a five-mile radius of Rochester were advised to stay indoors for more than eight hours Friday night and again Saturday after a chemical fire at a former industrial site along the Ohio River.
Six dumpsters adjacent to the facility, which is part of a project overseen by the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), could cause additional chemical releases if the chlorine tablets inside spontaneously combust again, said Rochester Fire Chief Michael Mamone III.
“There is a chance this can happen again,” Mamone said. “We’re working with DEP and their contractors to see what our next step is.”
If residents sense a strong smell of chlorine, they should stay indoors and close their windows. Mamone said.
County 911 received the initial call at 9:06 p.m. Friday that the former Beaver Alkali Products property on New York Avenue was on fire and emitting yellow smoke. County emergency services officials issued text, email and phone alerts around 9:15 p.m. advising people within a five-mile radius to “shelter-in-place due to an incident until further notice.”
The first advisory was lifted just before 5 a.m. Saturday but was reissued mid-morning. The second advisory was lifted at noon.
Officials said the first release was caused by chlorine pellets. Initially, the shelter advisory affected residents in a five-mile radius of the property, but officials quickly tightened it to a one-mile radius.
Friday’s chemical fire, at a site near the former Beaver Valley Bowl, caused foul-smelling chemicals to permeate the air. County EMS workers described the smell as “if a swimming pool exploded.”
Saturday morning, poor visibility from the smoke was reported in the area. A potent odor of chlorine was reported in Conway, just north of the Northern Lights Shopping Center, and across the Ohio River in Center Township and Monaca.
Mamone said while residents have detected strong chlorine odors since Friday evening, firefighters have not detected any hazardous chemical levels outside of the site of the release.
“We found no adverse effects outside of the incident itself,” Mamone said early Saturday. “Residents will smell this odor, but we’re not picking up anything on the air monitors.”
The initial shelter order affected residents in Rochester, Monaca, New Sewickley Township, Beaver, Brighton Township, Conway, and portions of Beaver Falls and New Brighton.
County 911 said Route 65 was closed in both directions Friday night and Saturday morning, as well as the Rochester-Monaca Bridge. The Beaver municipal pool delayed opening until noon Saturday because of the incident.
Contractors for the DEP were working to remediate a collapsed building Friday at 25 New York Ave, said Rochester officials. Workers finished around 6 p.m., but several hours later, a chemical release was reported at the site. HazMat teams, DEP and first responders from numerous municipalities were on the scene.
Mamone said HazMat crews and firefighters put water on the reaction site Saturday. That tactic worked Friday night, he said, even if it made the reaction more intense initially.
If another chemical release occurs, Mamone said, residents will be notified via the county’s Swift 911 alerts and on social media.
Meanwhile, DEP workers have made “substantial progress” at the site of a chemical fire where officials project it will take weeks to remove and properly dispose of the remaining chemicals.
Lauren Fraley, spokeswoman for DEP, said the department and its contractors will remain on site through at least Wednesday.
“Work that began yesterday to stabilize the chemicals by submerging them in water to prevent further chemical reactions continues today and will continue, at a minimum, through the middle of this week,” Fraley said Monday.
DEP officials believe the fire was caused by an “unknown reaction of materials in the building.”
Kevin Whipple, deputy director of Beaver County Emergency Services, said the department had made significant progress on the project Monday afternoon.
The site was turned over to DEP and its contractors by 4 p.m. Saturday from Beaver County Hazmat, Fraley said.
Dispose of Chemicals
“The project to remove and properly dispose of the chemicals in the two buildings is expected to take weeks,” Fraley said. “Because some parts of the building that caught fire are still inaccessible and work on the other building has not started, the timeline is subject to change.”
Fraley said contractors are also preparing to neutralize and dispose of the chemicals, water and building debris. Many of the chemicals in the buildings were unlabeled, and their containers were compromised. Both buildings are dilapidated, with collapsing roofs, and unsafe for entry.
DEP took charge of the project July 1, less than a week after one of the buildings almost completely collapsed. Prior to Friday’s incident, contractors had been working to try to make the buildings safe for entry so the chemicals inside could be sampled, identified and disposed.
Air monitoring has detected no chlorine levels in the air or off-site odors, Fraley said.