Department thwarts lake contamination at plant fire

By: Sara Kandel | Roseville - Eastpointe Eastsider | Published March 11, 2013

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ROSEVILLE — Firefighters in Roseville and other nearby departments prevented a hazardous chemical leak from reaching Lake St. Clair during a two-alarm fire at an industrial plant on the city’s northwest end.

The Roseville Fire Department was alerted to the fire at Sodecia at 11:41 a.m. March 5. The caller stated the fire was out of control and a co-worker was stuck inside.

Firefighters were suited-up and out the door quickly, arriving at the scene just four minutes later. The man had made it out by the time they arrived, but he was in bad shape and had to be transported to an area hospital, and the fire had spread to a room where hazardous chemicals and explosive material was stored.

“We requested backup from the Macomb County Technical Rescue Team,” said acting Fire Chief Mike Holland, of the Roseville Fire Department.

Trucks from Clinton Township, Fraser, Eastpointe and St. Clair Shores were dispatched to the scene, where clouds of black smoke billowed out of the expansive plant.

The fire had been contained to two rooms and a pit area below them, but the hazardous materials inside and the extreme heat presented potentially lethal challenges.

“The fire was so hot it actually caused the metal grate floors to ripple,” Holland said. “It was over 1,100 degrees. We couldn’t even enter the room until we cooled it down using water and foam. But we couldn’t put the fire out completely.

“Inside the room, there were oxygen and acetylene tanks. We had to wait for the oxygen and acetylene in the tanks to burn off. The fire increased the volatility of the gaseous chemicals inside, and if we put them out completely, disposal would be difficult, so we allowed them to burn off.”

The tanks are explosive at high temperatures. They used thermal-imaging cameras to monitor temperatures inside the tanks.

“To keep the product under control, we had to keep the temperature in the tanks down but allow the fire to burn,” Holland said.

The fire was completely out by 12:43 p.m. But the department’s work was far from over.

“There was other hazardous material involved,” Holland said. “Penetrating oil and other lubricants were kept in 55-gallon drums in one of the rooms we extinguished. There was some leaking, and some of the leaks got into the storm drain.”

The leaks could have posed a serious environmental hazard — the storm drain flows into a storm shed that pumps out to Lake St. Clair — but responding firefighters acted quickly to prevent contamination.

“We were able to prevent the majority of the hazardous materials from going out to the storm shed by dumping sand on the drains and placing about 3 yards of sand about 300 feet down the drain area, where it would filter out the contaminants before the water reaches the storm shed,” Holland said.

Holland explained, when the water flows through the sand, the hazardous chemicals become trapped.

“We can then collect the sand and dispose of the hazardous materials safely at an environmental facility.”

After collecting all the hazardous material and identifying the source of the fire — someone was welding in the pit and a spark hit a splash of spilled oil — Holland released the scene later that day.

There were no fatalities. The employee who had been trapped in the fire suffered non-life-threatening injuries and was released from the hospital the next day. Two other employees were treated for smoke inhalation and released at the scene.

Sodecia resumed regular operations March 6 and, at press time, renovations were already under way in the damaged area of the building.

For Holland, there couldn’t be a better ending. No one was seriously injured, and the people and company involved were quickly able to resume life as normal.

“I wanted to make sure the company was back and operational as soon as possible,” Holland said. “The company employs 200 employees and I wanted to do it for them — the 200 people depending on a paycheck they might not get if operations were down, and for the company, who employs 200 people in Roseville, and is losing money if operations are down.”

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