A worker incorrectly mixed chemicals which forced employees to evacuate and hazardous materials teams to come in to monitor a potentially explosive situation at Coloma Frozen Foods Inc. in Hagar Township, MI.

A worker inadvertently mixed two chemicals used for cleaning — bleach and paracetic acid — creating a volatile mix, said Coloma Chief Operating Officer Terry Harris.

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Workers ended up evacuated Thursday around 8:30 a.m., and North Berrien Fire Rescue responded, as was the Watervliet Fire Department, the Berrien County Sheriff Department’s Hazardous Materials Team and a hazardous materials team from nearby Niles.

The chemicals were inside a 55-gallon plastic barrel, so there was no chemical leak. But due to the unstable nature of the chemical mixture, they did not move the barrel, said Watervliet Fire Chief Dan Jones.

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North Berrien Fire Rescue Chief Bob Ruff said the chemical combination can be extremely explosive. He said his department set up fire trucks around the corners of the building, while the haz-mat teams donned protective suits and went inside to monitor the barrel. When the first crew went in, the barrel was bulging and fuming, he said.

“We sent in a thermal imaging camera to check the temperature, and it was 181 degrees at that point. We kept checking and after the third entry it started to come down.”

At that point, he said, haz-mat crews decided not to move the barrel, but instead moved all other chemicals in the plant away from the volatile barrel. Once the barrel stopped fuming and most of the mixture had evaporated, a commercial cleanup company came in to remove and dispose of it, Ruff said.

Harris said by 2:30 p.m., they got the all clear to go back into the building, but by then the work force had gone home.

“They were originally sent outside to wait, but around 9 o’clock we sent them home. The fire department had arrived and told us it would be several hours before we could attempt to go back in.”

Harris explained what happened:

He said an employee, whom he would not identify, had taken a hand pump out of a barrel of chlorine bleach and put it in a barrel of paracetic acid.

“There was a chemical reaction like if you put acid and chlorine together, causing chlorine gas. We saw the gas starting to come up out of the barrel, which had the cap open. We saw the gas rising and forming a bit of a cloud. At that point we evacuated and I made the 911 call,” Harris said.

He said that, being the off-season for the processing of frozen foods, there were about a dozen workers there Thursday. In the summer there are as many as 140, he said. No one was injured or became ill.

Harris said it’s unlikely that there will be any ramifications for the employee who made the mistake, but that “there will definitely be some re-training.”

The company uses the chemicals in very small amounts and mixed them with water for cleaning and sanitization at the plant. Coloma Frozen Foods markets food products under its own label, Nature Blessed.

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