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Chemical leak forces evacuation of workers

(ran SS edition of METRO & STATE)

Eleven city workers were evacuated and morning rush-hour traffic was snarled Thursday after a chemical leaked from a valve at a wastewater treatment plant on Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard east of the Bayside Bridge.

Two city workers noticed that a valve on a tank was releasing sulfur dioxide about 8 a.m. The two workers and nine other employees evacuated the building and called 911.

The employees were evaluated. None was injured.

Hazardous materials units from across the county responded to the call. The vehicles had to park in the eastbound lanes of Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard, which caused the closure of those lanes for about 20 minutes. Police shifted eastbound traffic into the center lanes to keep vehicles moving.

Hazmat crews entered the building and sealed the valve, said Frank DeFrancesco, a district chief for the Largo Fire Department who is one of the county's Hazmat commanders.

DeFrancesco said sulfur dioxide is used to remove chlorine from wastewater. It is kept in canisters in a liquid form, which turns to gas when it is released into the air.

The chemical can cause respiratory problems to those who breath it and can burn skin if touched, he said.

DeFrancesco said he didn't know how much of the chemical was released Thursday, though he didn't think it was much.

The plant did not halt operations because of the leak, said city spokeswoman Joelle Wiley.

DeFrancesco said two employees were changing a 1-ton tank when they noticed the leak. Workers are supposed to check the tanks in pairs with ammonia, which will turn to a white gas if there is a leak, he said.

Rescue crews were at the facility until late morning.