Chemical release empties building

October 09, 2002|by RICHARD BELISLE

A valve in a computer system cooling unit burst late Tuesday morning, spewing water-borne potassium hydroxide over a classroom full of about 100 adults in an instructional building at the National Conservation Training Center.

The building was evacuated immediately and there were no serious injuries, said Steve Chase, the chief of facility, operations and administration at the sprawling government training center north of Shepherdstown.

Potassium hydroxide is extremely toxic in its pure state but it was highly diluted in the cooling system, Chase said. It is added to the system to control bacteria, he said.


Potassium hydroxide can be fatal if swallowed and is harmful when inhaled or when it comes in contact with skin. Treatment includes breathing fresh air and prolonged washing with clean water.

Some students and faculty members in the building were sprayed with the chemical-laden water when the valve let go. Most were OK after breathing fresh air or having their exposed skin washed off, Chase said.

About 15 people were given full showers, he said.

None was taken to the hospital, but all were evaluated at the scene by emergency services personnel, Chase said.

Chase said while no one was injured, the incident was treated as if it were a full-blown hazardous material incident.

"In the end, it turned out to be a minor incident, but we treated it very seriously," he said.

Nearly a dozen ambulances from the Eastern Panhandle and Washington County responded to the center.

"We were very pleased with the quick response," Chase said.

Chase said the broken valve was being repaired Tuesday afternoon and the building was being aired out. He said he expected it to reopen today.

The center trains researchers for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies.

About 13,000 federal trainees go through programs at the center every year.

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