Cameron Chemicals off Old Dill Road in Suffolk, Virginia (VA), burst into flames Sunday afternoon, Dec. 6. No one was injured, but residents in two homes mere blocks from the facility that produces specialty fertilizers had to evacuate for several hours. As Suffolk spokeswoman Debbie George explained to WAVY TV 10, while no toxic chemicals or fumes were detected, “There’s great concern whenever there’s a fire that involves chemicals because not only do you have to deal with the fire and the flames themselves, but you also have to be concerned about your firefighters and the citizens.”
While true, George’s description of the risks chemical spills and fires pose to people near the incident is also a considerable understatement. last week saw the 25th anniversary of the release of methyl isocyanate gas from a Union Carbide (now Dow) plant in Bhopal, India, that killed an estimated 22,000 and caused ongoing health problems in more than 1 million town residents.
Closer to home, and much more recently, about 17,000 workers and residents had to be evacuated for several days from Apex, North Carolina (NC), when a chlorine gas explosion destroyed most of an EnvroChem plant there in 2006. In 2008, a liquid fertilizer storage tank collapsed in the South area of Chesapeake, causing nearly 20 people to leave their homes for more than a week.
While lawyers for companies that make, store and transport chemical sometimes argue that, to some extent, people who live near chemical plants and major hauling routed bear some responsibility for choosing to reside in the presence of constant potential harm, chemical manufacturers and storage tank operators have the ultimate responsibility for preventing accidents.
Investigators have yet to determine the cause of the Cameron Chemicals fire. Depending on what evidence and conclusions emerge, any firefighters or HAZMAT personnel who responded to the blaze, and any members of the evacuated families, could hold the company liable for short-term health problems such as asthma or longer-term results of chemical exposure such as cancer.