SARNIA- A local union official whose members were taken to Bluewater Health Thursday after a toxic vapor release at Suncor Energy is demanding that workers are kept better informed during plant emergencies.
“Everyone is concerned about what’s going to happen next,” said Ross Tius, business manager for the Pipefitters Local 663.
No alarms sounded when something went wrong with a routine maintenance job on a pump in the plant’s alkylation unit about 9:30 a.m. Thursday.
The plant is part of Sarnia’s Chemical Valley.
A “small amount” of highly corrosive hydrofluoric acid and hydrocarbons was released from a nearby sewer, Suncor vice president Ian Savill said.
Operators and maintenance workers were draining a mix of hydrofluoric acid and hydrocarbons to an acid sewer when the incident occurred, according to a preliminary investigation.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, hydrogen fluoride gas can irritate the eyes, nose and respiratory tract even at low levels. Breathing in hydrogen fluoride at high levels can be deadly.
“Immediately, the work was shut down, and the leak was completely contained,” Savill said. “Our attention turned to the health and safety of some workers who were downwind and suffered exposure to hydrofluoric acid.”
Initially, nine workers complained of nose and throat irritations and were sent for on-site first aid, then on to the hospital.
“Triage showed that two people had more serious (injuries) than the others, and we called for (ambulances) to get them to medical facilities immediately,” Savill said.
Officials said people on the U.S. side of the St. Clair River were not at risk during the incident.
In 2005, Suncor, was one of 31 companies in Chemical Valley ordered by the Ontario Ministry of Environment to come into compliance with environmental laws.
The refinery manufactures, distributes and markets transportation fuels, heating oils and petrochemicals primarily in Ontario.
An air ambulance was called to Suncor strictly as a precaution and arrived about 10:50 a.m. but never was used, Savill said.
As word spread about the release, other employees began to “come in waves” with similar complaints.
With the help of numerous ambulances and a Sarnia Transit bus, 23 workers went to Bluewater Health.
About half of the workers were treated for minor respiratory symptoms, including burning in the mouth and throat, hospital spokeswoman Toni Adey said.
The rest needed no treatment.
Suncor officials agree with Tius that misinformation started to circulate in the community shortly after the incident.
Unconfirmed radio reports suggested some of the workers were in critical condition when that was not the case.
And, without any alarm sounding, hundreds of employees continued to work without any knowledge of the incident.
“It’s not good when there’s a lack of care associated with the response,” Tius said. “When you have 1,000 people on this site with two live units, there’s got to be a way of letting them know what is happening.
“I’m very, very glad it wasn’t as big an issue as it could have been, but if it had been a full-blown emergency, it could have been catastrophic.
As it was, rumors caused Local 663 to be “inundated” with phone calls from anxious family members.
Tius said he went to the hospital himself to confirm the incident was minor and workers were being treated and released.
Savill said the question of why there was no alarm is under investigation.
In 2004, it took Suncor officials five hours to notify St. Clair County officials that 37 gallons of gasoline material from a heat exchanger on a water-cooling system had been leaked into the St. Clair River.