Chlorinated dry bleach and methanol were present in a fire that burned for two hours after a fatal explosion at the Optima Chemical facility on the Chemours Co.’s site in Belle Tuesday night, according to emergency responders.
An emergency and hazardous chemical inventory that Optima Belle LLC submitted to the West Virginia Emergency Management Division, as required by the division for a reporting period spanning all of 2019, lists 18 chemicals, half of which were listed as explosive or flammable.
Methanol was one of the flammable chemicals, and CDB 63, a chlorinated dry bleach product that emergency responders said was present in the fire, was not listed at all.
“Methanol would certainly catch on fire,” said Jimmie Oxley, an explosives expert and a professor of chemistry at the University of Rhode Island.
The list of chemicals in Optima’s inventory didn’t concern Oxley.
“There’s nothing that stands out,” Oxley said.
The inventory indicates there was an average daily amount of 40,000 pounds of methanol at the facility.
“Flammable vapors will ignite when exposed to a flame, spark or heat that is at a temperature above the point where the vapors will ignite,” said Meyer R. Rosen, a forensic chemist, chemical engineer and president of Interactive Consulting Inc., in East Norwich, New York. “Methanol is in that category.”
Preliminary information indicates a 1,200-gallon metal dryer became overpressurized during a chemical drying product operation, according to Optima. The material in the dryer was a compound used for sanitation.
“These chemicals don’t want to be overheated,” Oxley said.
Methanol is commonly used as antifreeze, and chlorinated dry bleach can be used as a pool cleaner.
“You’d be very hard-pressed to go to Home Depot and not find lots of products that contain methanol,” Oxley said.
Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper said he doesn’t care how the chemicals can be found as everyday products. He said he wants them included in Tier II chemical inventory data to help and protect emergency responders doing their jobs. Carper and C.W. Sigman, director of emergency management for Kanawha County, said the Tier II data that Optima submitted did not list CDB 63.
Sigman said Optima plant representatives told him and Carper that Tuesday was the first day the chemical was used at the plant.
“We asked why it wasn’t on the disclosure, and their response was, ‘Well, we had just gotten the chemical. It was our first procedure,’” Sigman said. “It was very much like, ‘What did you expect? We just started.’”
Doug Cochran, Optima’s vice president of business development, could not be reached for comment for this report. Neither could the Optima plant and environmental, health and safety managers listed on the Tier II form.
Chemours also could not be reached for comment.
Sigman said a Chemours site fire brigade identified the presence of CDB 63 and methanol at the incident for other responders when they arrived.
The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection announced Thursday that the explosion had minimal impact on air quality, saying in a news release that the fire did not create ongoing emissions to the atmosphere.
“Based on what we know of the chemistry involved, the compounds would have dispersed rapidly and not posed an acute hazard to the community based on the expected dilution of products of combustion in the atmosphere,” DEP Secretary Austin Caperton said.
The DEP is investigating the incident, as is the U.S. Chemical Safety Board and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
The explosion occurred at 10:02 p.m. Tuesday and killed John Gillenwater, 42, of Hurricane, a husband and father of two. Optima reported that two other chemical operators were in the building at the time of the explosion, hospitalized and released.
Sigman noted, per the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act of 1986, that industries must report on the storage, use and releases of hazardous substances to federal, state and local governments.
“The community has a right to know what chemicals are being transported and what chemicals are in that plant,” he said.