Georgia Investigated Complaint Against Chemical Plant Prior to Worker Injury

July 28, 2014

Environmental regulators investigated an anonymous report alleging MFG Chemical Inc. in Dalton, Ga., was illegally discarding waste five months before an accident injured a worker, government records show.

The company’s regulatory manager, Joe Stafford, told an investigator sent by the Environmental Protection Division that the allegations were false, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press under Georgia’s open records law. A state investigator who visited the site Feb. 19 found no evidence of violations. The commercial development manager for MFG Chemical, Woody Mader, said Thursday he could not immediately comment on the case.

Without witnesses or corroborating details, it can be difficult for investigators to probe deeply into such allegations, said J.R. Campbell, the EPD’s emergency response manager. That’s one reason his unit does not typically accept anonymous complaints. It was not clear how this particular allegation was referred to the state agency.

“When we receive an anonymous complaint, we are really hamstrung. So we can’t call the complainant and say, ‘OK, I’m going to the facility. What drain was this dumped into? When was this done last?” Campbell said. “Unless we see something of reasonably acceptable evidence to support the allegation … sometimes there’s not a way to prove or disprove an allegation.”

During a plant tour with an inspector, Stafford said the company has permission to dilute small amounts of waste with large quantities of water. The mixture is then sent to the local utility company for treatment, according to an EPD report. Stafford said chemical containers are cleaned, then sent to another company for reuse or disposal.

The firm has a record of problems. Investigators from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health administration are investigating a July 7 accident. Fire officials said that when a worker was adding a chemical into a reactor to produce maleic anhydride, a resulting chemical reaction produced a vapor that escaped before a hatch could be shut. The worker was treated for burns, and the accident is still under investigation.

MFG Chemical paid more than $57,000 in penalties for violations uncovered by OSHA after a runaway reaction at another of its plants on May 21, 2012, put too much pressure in a reactor and blew a hole in the roof of the building, federal safety officials said.

A runaway reaction at a company facility on April 12, 2004, released highly toxic and flammable chemicals, forcing the evacuation of more than 200 families, according to the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board. One worker suffered chemical burns and 154 people needed to be decontaminated and treated for chemical exposure. A half-mile of vegetation south of the plant was burned by the chemicals. Firefighters sprayed water on the chemical cloud to control it, causing the contaminated runoff to seep into waterways and kill aquatic life. The company paid $270,000 in civil penalties to settle violations of the Clean Air Act.

Since 2003, MFG Chemical has reported additional spills of detergents, mineral spirits, ammonia and acids, records show. No injuries or major damage were reported in those incidents.

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