Chemical reaction contained, evacuation lifted

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) – Streets have reopened and business is back to normal in the area surrounding Haviland Chemical in northwest Grand Rapids after a chemical reaction inside a Haviland Enterprises building created a vapor cloud and quite a stir, but fortunately, no injuries.

It was cause for concern for Randy Hutson, who works at Mill Creek Centre at the corner of Ann Street NW and Turner Avenue NW across from Haviland Chemical, as fire engines raced to the scene and moon suit-clad firefighters went into action Thursday morning.

“Luckily, I was able to call an individual who I know at Haviland, and he just told me it was a chemical fire/spill and not to worry, he would let me know,” Hutson said.

A few minutes later, a firefighter helped to further relieve some of that initial fear.

“He said everything was OK,” Hutson said. “The wind was going from south to north, so everything was OK at this point.”

An alarm was still going off inside the Haviland facility Thursday afternoon as the cleanup continued.

Around 9:30 a.m., two chemicals mixed together to make a product used to clean swimming pools react. Then they started to smoke.

There were no flames but a lot of heat — enough to set off the building’s sprinkler system.

Employees evacuated the plant.

The tank where the chemicals were being mixed reacted the way it was designed to react in the case of an emergency, by venting the vapor buildup to the outside, in order to avoid a potential explosion.

But the vapor that was released outside the building formed a chemical cloud above the plant.

“Very quickly after that, we have air-monitoring stuff that we have on our hazmat truck that we’re able to start doing monitoring and the levels dropped off to next to nothing,” said Grand Rapids Fire Department Acting Deputy Chief Kevin Sehlmeyer.

But an evacuation order, which affected mostly businesses to the north of the plant, remained for several hours.

“That cloud is long gone,” Sehlmeyer said. “And the process now is, how do we contain the liquid that’s left from the fire suppression system.”

Inside the plant, a pool of water from the building’s sprinkler system mixed with chemicals from the reaction into a containment chamber, which is another safety feature designed to catch any tainted water from leaking outside the plant.

Hazmat crews stayed at the scene until a private contractor finished pumping out the water from inside the plant and transported it to a disposal facility.

At that point, the potential for danger was over.

“Don’t know if there ever was any to be honest with you,” said Art Harre, Haviland’s chief sales officer. “But you know what, you gotta take the precautions.”

The company is now looking to find out what went wrong with the process that caused the reaction.

Haviland officials said they’ve been producing the chemical in question for about five years, and had already mixed three batches Thursday morning before the reaction occurred without a problem.

Thursday’s incident wasn’t the first time Haviland Enterprises had to handle an emergency situation at its plant.

In 1991, the company experienced its worst mishap when a large fire sent a much more significant plume of smoke over the city. In that case, the size of the fire made containing the situation significantly more difficult.

In 2002, a chemical spill prompted a large chemical cloud above the plant as well. More than a dozen employees were taken to the hospital, and Haviland was fined almost $6,000 by the state, and the business was deemed unprepared to deal with such a spill.

But since that spill, a number of things changed at Haviland; the business now has preparations in place and training for its workers to prevent similar mishaps.

While there were two other minor incidents in 2003 and 2004, there were no fines imposed and no one was hurt, and since then, the company has had no known violations other than a minor infraction with the state.

Following Thursday’s incident, Haviland will have to file reports with the state as they investigate what went wrong.

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