Senate examines Kan. chemical plant fire

By Dion Lefler
The Wichita Eagle

VALLEY CENTER, Kan. — The July fire that devastated the Barton Solvents plant in Valley Center has prompted a Senate committee to begin seeking ways to prevent, or at least limit, the damage from future chemical accidents.

Better coordination among state agencies and more stringent spill-containment requirements were two of the possibilities arising from a hearing Thursday before the Senate Natural Resources Committee.

Sen. Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick, who heads the committee, said she's troubled that responsibility for overseeing the safety of storage tank operations is split between two agencies --the Kansas Department of Health and Environment and the state fire marshal's office.

"It sounds like there's a disconnect," McGinn said. "It seems we need a lot more coordination between them than exists now."

Gary Blackburn, director of KDHE's Bureau of Environmental Remediation, told lawmakers that his agency had not inspected Barton Solvents before the fire.

Under state law, KDHE is responsible for checking underground tanks, such as those that store gasoline, while above-ground tanks, like those at Barton, fall under the jurisdiction of the fire marshal.

"Had this been an underground petroleum tank, we would have had an inspection every three years," Blackburn said.

Officials of the fire marshal's office have said they never inspected Barton's tank farm, because the office lacks the necessary staffing and expertise.

Barton Solvents had about 40 tanks with capacities ranging from 3,000 to 20,000 gallons used to store dry cleaning fluid and other solvents.

Another issue arising in Thursday's hearing was whether Barton should have been ringed by containment dams to catch spills from the tanks.

"I look at the pictures, I don't see any," said Sen. Tim Huelskamp, R-Fowler.

"I would guess they (federal officials) would require it if it was a new facility," Blackburn replied. But he said the Barton tank operation probably predated the requirement.

McGinn said that's another issue the committee will have to consider.

"We might need to look at some of our grandfathering laws," she said.

In Barton's case, the question could be moot.

Officials said the company is considering moving its operations from the Valley Center site and putting up a new facility in the Bel Aire area.

On the day of the fire, an impromptu effort to build dikes to contain contamination from the fire actually contributed to it, said Rick Bean, chief of KDHE's remedial section.

Unknown to firefighters, a sewer manhole within their containment berms carried toxic chemicals straight to the city sewer plant, he said.

The chemicals killed bacteria that break down waste in the plant, and Valley Center had to import sewage sludge from Haysville to fix the problem, he said.

Blackburn acknowledged that some of the toxic waste -- mostly firefighting foam with some solvents mixed in -- made it all the way to the treatment plant's discharge at the Little Arkansas River.

He said that contamination was minimal and dispersed rapidly.

The KDHE officials said the big question -- what caused the fire -- remains unanswered.

They said they are waiting for findings from the federal Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board. They don't know when that's expected to be complete.

The KDHE officials also suggested that knowledge gained from the Barton Solvents fire might prompt changes in the way firefighters respond to future incidents.

Much of the ground contamination from the fire was a result of chemicals from the Barton tanks mixing with water and foam that firefighters used to extinguish the blaze.

Blackburn said cleanup might have been easier if firefighters had simply contained the fire and let it burn itself out, which would have incinerated most of the chemicals that are now being cleaned up.

Bean, however, cautioned that containing the fire to the tank farm was crucial because the blaze might have spread to a storage building that housed more dangerous chemicals than were in the tank farm.

Copyright 2008 The Wichita Eagle

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