DAYTON – A recent explosion at a nitrogen trifluoride production facility did not release toxic gases, Michael Koonce, president of Advanced Specialty Gases Inc., said Friday.
Nevertheless, the chief of the Central Lyon County Fire District said the plant makes “nasty stuff” and doesn’t belong in the community.
Hydrogen fluoride was not involved in the Sunday morning incident, according to Koonce.
Nitrogen trifluoride is used as a cleaning and etching agent and is relatively non-toxic at room temperature. Small doses of hydrogen fluoride can cause severe respiratory damage.
“It was an explosion of nitrogen trifluoride in the distillation column during the distillation process. Hydrogen fluoride is not used in that part of the process and is not stored in that part of the plant. There was no cloud and at no time was there a threat of a leak of hydrogen fluoride,” Koonce said Friday.
He said the company has hired professional forensic engineers with extensive experience in failure analysis to work with the Nevada Department of Environmental Protection during the investigation of the incident. Officials from Air Products, another manufacturer of the nitrogen fluoride compound used for cleaning the ovens that are used to produce silicon chips, have also requested to be part of the investigation.
“They are competitors of ours, but they also want to know what happened so that as an industry we can learn from this incident,” Koonce said of the Pennsylvania company.
Koonce noted that hydrogen fluoride is hazardous, but safety measures have been taken to ensure against accidental leaks.
“Because of on-site preparations and safety measures, I don’t think a catastrophic event will ever happen. If it does, we are well prepared on site to suppress such an incident within the facility and the chances of the gas leaking from the plant are minute,” he said.
Area emergency responders, including Central Lyon County Fire District, have an agreement with ASG that they will respond to emergencies at the site but will not enter the building until assured the air has been cleared and hazardous materials secured.
The recent incident has created considerable discussion among local officials and residents. Many have raised questions regarding the facility’s proximity to Sutro Elementary School and residential neighborhoods.
Central Lyon County Fire District Chief Bill Driscoll wants it moved and has strongly voiced his opposition.=20
Speaking to the Dayton Regional Advisory Council on Wednesday evening, Driscoll said, “The investigation may show they have done nothing wrong, but the fact of the matter is, that type of facility does not belong in our community.
“What they make is nasty stuff. I don’t care how they color it, how they wrap it, it doesn’t belong here. It was a mistake that needs to be remedied.”
Driscoll said he is asking the Lyon County Emergency Planning Committee to make changes to their master plan that will prohibit similar businesses from locating in the area in the future.
“I urge the county planning commission and county commissioners to do what they can to see that ASG relocates. We would like to see that plant go away.”
Koonce said the federal government considers nitrogen tri-fluoride to be a non-flammable gas.
While cautioning no action should be taken until all the facts are in, Commissioner Bob Milz told the council “I don’t think there is any place in a community for a company than can annihilate a whole area.”
Lyon County Manager Stephen Snyder on Thursday told commissioners he had received several calls from residents requesting ASG’s special use permit be revoked. He recommended the board wait until the results of the investigation have been received before scheduling a special hearing.
Approved unanimously by both the Lyon Planning Commission and County Commission, ASG was granted a special use permit in January 1996 and is up for its annual review in December.
Central Lyon County Fire Board member Chuck Ayres said he opposed the application from the beginning.
“I did not want it then. I do not want it now,” he told the council. “If it had been handled correctly back then, this would not have happened.”
Ayres has placed the issue on the agenda for Wednesday’s scheduled fire district board meeting.
Dayton resident Barbara Peck, a teacher at Sutro Elementary, expressed concern with the safety of the school children, noting the explosion occurred during the time students would have been outside for lunch if school had been in session.
Others want assurances the company would not be allowed to reopen until county officials discuss the issue and asked if there was a coordinated evacuation plan.
According to Koonce, the emergency plan for a catastrophic failure of the system’s safety measures recommends students and residents not be evacuated, but that air conditioning be turned off and doors and windows closed until the cloud passes.
The plant is not currently producing nitrogen trifluoride, the primary function of the facility.
“We are simply doing trans-filling of non-flammable gases from larger to smaller containers. Since we have hydrogen fluoride on site, there is always someone there, 24 hours a day,” Koonce said.
Koonce said the plant should be back in operation within six to eight weeks.
Lyon County Community Development Director John Evasovic, however, said Friday that, according to the county’s engineering inspection, enough damage was done to require ASG to acquire new building permits for the plant at 28 Enterprise Way, east of Dayton.
The explosion removed the metal roof panels from a section of the building isolated by concrete walls from the rest of the building.
The three employees on site incurred no injuries and all safety systems with in the plant were working properly, according to ASG. A small brush fire of approximately 600 square feet occurred after the incident and was extinguished by ASG personnel.