Monteagle Chemical Spill TEMA Response: Tragedy Averted

by Leslie Lytle, Messenger Staff Writer

Early on the morning of April 23, Monteagle Mayor Marilyn Campbell Rodman received a phone call about a vapor cloud leaking from a tanker truck parked at Shan’s Chinese Buffet.

“It could have been catastrophic for the city of Monteagle” said Steve Lamb, Marion County Emergency Management Agency (EMA) director. A “coordinated response,” with the Monteagle Fire Department in the lead, averted tragedy.

According to Lamb, a truck driver leaving the parking lot noticed vapor spewing from a nearby truck and woke the driver sleeping in the cab. The driver evacuated and contacted the Monteagle Fire Department who in turn contacted Grundy County EMA. The chemical being transported had eaten a hole in the tank. Identifying the chemical took precedence. The evacuating driver left his shipping papers in the truck. Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) signage posted on the tank named the chemical, but the assembled first responders did not want to risk venturing into the vapor cloud. Weekend closings stymied initial efforts to contact Albermarle, owner of the tank and contents. The receiving clerk finally reached identified the chemical as chlorobutane, a highly flammable, corrosive chemical listed in the Emergency Response Guidebook.

Grundy County EMA Director Dennis Jones contacted Lamb and a call for assistance went out. “Everybody came together on a moment’s notice,” said Monteagle Fire Chief Geron Brewer. Fifteen agencies responded, including the Coffee County Haz-Mat Team and Grundy County EMS to provide medical assistance. Lamb highlighted three concerns: fire (chlorobutane has an ignition of just 68 degrees Fahrenheit), protecting the water supply, and protecting residents from exposure to the vapors. According to the Library of Medicine website, chlorobutane is a skin and eye irritant and, in the event of fire, emits toxic fumes.

Rodman arrived at the site at 5 a.m. and consulted with the responders about notification of the public. “We didn’t want anyone outside,” Rodman said, explaining why the emergency siren alert system was not used. Shortly after 6 a.m., area EMAs sent phone, text and email notifications telling people to “shelter in place.” Rodman directed Police Chief Jack Hill to notify the nursing home and Marion County Schools. Monteagle Elementary canceled school.

Lamb attributed the hole in the tanker and the vapor to a chemical reaction between the product and the tank. A steel or lined tank should have been used to ship the product, not an aluminum tank, Lamb said. The vapor dissipated fairly quickly once it escaped from the ruptured tank. At 8:46 a.m., GCTV6 announced the shelter in place was lifted. However, Dixie Lee Highway was still blocked off between DuBose Conference Center and I-24 Exit 135. Much product had leaked onto the ground. Lamb worried the truck might collapse, releasing the remaining contents, a scenario he had observed in an “incompatible loads” training video.

The first responders had erected berms blocking leaked material from a nearby creek and the school. By 10 a.m., a cleanup company sent by Albermarle had arrived. The crew dug another barrier behind the truck, then began cleaning up the ground. The product remaining in the tank was removed from the site in totes, the tank cleaned, and the tank hole sealed, before the tank was removed.

TDEC monitored the cleanup. A chemical testing company verified the water supply was uncontaminated. TDOT cleared a produce truck parked nearby for resuming travel. And by 9 p.m. that evening, with the cleanup process largely completed, Lamb, the other responders, and Rodman finally returned home.

“The TEMA Director Charlie Hall told me [the response and cleanup] was done quicker and better than he’d ever seen orchestrated in a non-drill situation,” Rodman said. “We worked with incredible people. Thank you. We were blessed.”

Telephone emergency alerts automatically go out to landline users. Cellphone users can sign up for emergency alerts at <>; (Franklin County), <>; (Marion County), and <; (Grundy County).

Lamb reported one snag in the response. Marion County failed to send out emergency alerts.

“There was a glitch in the process,” Rodman said.