By Walter F. Roche Jr.
Tennessee environmental officials have begun an investigation into the release of toxic nitrogen gases at the US Nitrogen facility in Greene County following a Wednesday evening incident.
Eric Ward, a spokesman for the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, said today that it was too early to determine whether officials from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will also be drawn into the inquiry.
Ward said the state agency began its investigation this morning.
"It is too early to speculate at this time on any environmental impacts, potential fines or enforcement actions as a result of this incident," Ward said in an email response to questions.
The Wednesday night incident occurred around 6:30 p.m. and, like a previous misfire, included an orange cloud of nitrogen vapors.
It prompted a late night press conference at the Midway facility by Greene County Mayor David Crum and Sheriff Pat Hankins. Both said the release had been halted by the time they reached the scene.
US Nitrogen reported that there were no injuries to employees and that company officials promptly notified state and local officials of the incident.
Around 6:30 p.m., US Nitrogen experienced a release of nitric acid
vapors. The release is dissipating, and no workers were injured.
the safety of our workers and the community, US Nitrogen will cooperate
with these agencies and will investigate the cause of the release to
ensure that the issues are resolved," company Plant Manager Andrew Velo said in a statement to the media.
Crum and Hankins said nearby residents were instructed to shelter in place until the vapors had dissipated.
Crum did say that the emissions were toxic and could have harmed anyone who came in contact with them. He also promised a local inquiry into the incident which triggered a response from emergency mangement workers.
The Wednesday incident is the latest in a series of problems the company has experienced in starting up the nitric acid plant, a key component in the production of ammonium nitrate, the company's primary product.
TDEC is currently considering US Nitrogen's request to extend the deadline for the completion of tests on the operation of the acid plant.
Ward said TDEC's role Wednesday was to be on standby to provide technical assistance for US Nitrogen and Tennessee Emergency Management Agency personnel.