Safety officials with a Pennsylvania-based chemical release response team continued to work to clear the downtown Martinsburg, WV, area after an accidental chemical mixture Dec. 23 at the Martinsburg Sewer Treatment Plant led to an evacuation and displaced residents overnight. After spending the day evacuating the community and assessing the situation, officials with Berkeley County Public Safety said the evacuation would remain in effect until Dec. 24, calling for the 24-hour evacuation to ensure the chemicals were thoroughly dispersed from the air before allowing people back into their homes. The release was a chemical mixture of sodium hydrochloride and ferric chloride.
“This has been a slower process than anticipated,” said Chad Shifflett, public information coordinator for Berkeley County, “due to taking a safer route to removing the chemicals, thus keeping citizens and first responders safe.” The original call-for-service came in at 5:55 a.m. at the 500 E. John Street plant, Shifflett said from the Emergency Operations Center. “Once it was deemed a public safety concern, then the evacuation was put into place,” he said. This occurred around 8 a.m. Shifflett said the evacuations were for half-mile radius around the plant. “The incident was an accidental chemical mixture of sodium hydrochloride and ferric chloride during a transport tanker off load,” he said. “There was no leaking, it was an accidental mixture, so it is under control because it was maintained to the tank.” Officials said errors such as this have happened in other areas. “It is a common error. It has happened in numerous municipalities. It is just the matter of evacuating until it disperses,” Shifflett said. Shifflett said an emergency alert was not used because there was no imminent danger to the public like a wildfire. “We just didn’t want people sitting around and risking it,” he said. According to officials on the Berkeley County Public Safety Facebook page, the emissions should only result in a mild respiratory irritation. Individuals should not experience delayed or long-term effects. “It is not a situation of poison,” Shifflett said. “It is just exposure. If it is affecting you, it is going to effect you immediately. It is not going to get in your system and effect you later.” However, in the event of nausea and vomiting, seek medical attention. The vapor emission from the two chemicals is what is floating around the city, Shifflett said. “They are testing that just to make sure the chemicals fall beneath the certain parts per million and that once it is safe, they will lift the evacuation and everybody can return home,” he said. “It is going to disperse rather than move because it is not super windy so it won’t blow somewhere else.” Agencies from Maryland and Virginia also responded to the area Monday morning as a precaution, but Shifflett said, when they realized it was more of a small-scale situation investigation, local personnel were handling response. Gov. Jim Justice ordered West Virginia’s State Emergency Operations Center (SEOC) to partial activation in response to the incident. Orchard View Intermediate School and Martinsburg South Middle School were both set up as areas for residents to go during the incident. The Red Cross had been bussing residents in to Orchard View from affected areas.