GLOUCESTER COUNTY, Va. (WAVY) - Officials have determined the cause of a HazMat situation at Advanced Finishing Systems on Route 17 Wednesday morning in Gloucester County.
Bob Spieldenner with the Virginia Department of Emergency Management told WAVY.com there were possible chemical vapors coming from acid baths at Advanced Finishing Systems located at 2954 George Washington Memorial Hwy. in the Hayes area.
Battalion Chief Steve Pincus with the Newport News Fire Department told WAVY.com the Newport News Regional HazMat Team was dispatched to the scene around 3:45 a.m. A smoke plume caused by a chemical reaction was drifting across Route 17.
Nitric acid was the chemical involved in the incident. Todd Cannon with the Virginia Department of Emergency Management told WAVY.com the situation was not a leak or a spill, but was a vaporization of the nitric acid.
Cannon said the acid is kept in a vat with a thermostat on the outside that says how much the acid needs to be heated or cooled. That thermostat was working improperly and heated the acid, causing it to vaporize. The vapor could be seen coming out of the vent.
State emergency officials called Dominion Power to cut off electricity to the AFS building, which helped secure the ventilation systems and the vaporized nitric acid.
"Once we secured the power, the temperature dropped. By dropping the vapor temperature it stops reacting," Cannon said. "We did good extensive monitoring around the area. We found the atmosphere to be safe."
Advanced Finishing Systems uses nitric acid for plating, specifically to dissolve nickel.
According to the Center for Disease Control, nitric acid is a "colorless, yellow or red, fuming liquid with an acrid, suffocating odor." Risks for exposure include inhalation, ingestion, skin and/or eye contact. Eyes, skin and mucous membranes can become irritated if exposed to the acid. Delayed pulmonary edema, pneumonitis, bronchitis and dental erosion can also occur.
10 On Your Side dug deeper into Advanced Finishing Systems and learned they've been in trouble with the Environmental Protection Agency in the past.
The EPA cited a violation with the company three years ago, the last time they inspected the company. That claim has not been settled and AFS has been listed as having "significant non-compliance" each quarter since then, according to the EPA's website.
"There is an ongoing enforcement action dating back to 2010," said AFS spokesperson Donna Heron in an email to WAVY.com. "Since this action hasn't been settled yet, we can't comment any further."
WAVY.com spoke with businesses in the area that are now concerned about neighboring businesses that use potentially dangerous chemicals without anyone knowing about it.
Lynee Manning's office is practically across the street from Advanced Finishing Systems. She had no idea what was going on until she arrived at work after battling traffic. But there is something about this situation that bothers her more than being late for work this morning.
"I guess I was surprised that there was a chemical plant right here across the street, but I know that sometimes cities grow up around places like that."
AFS is not a chemical plant, although they do work with some potentially dangerous chemicals like nitric acid.
"Any chemical can be dangerous," said AFS manager Aaron Green. "Clorox Bleach can be dangerous, it's just a matter of how you handle it."
Not much more that a mile from Green's metal coating business is a day care center. One worker there told 10 On Your Side that it should be public knowledge if a business nearby uses potentially dangerous chemicals.
"I feel like it's very harmful, especially for people who are pregnant or have little kids, and it's just very harmful," said Jourdan Kounse, a day care worker.
"What happens is you get these plants that are zoned for out in the country when they're built, and then the city grows up around them and the zoning laws changed, but they're grandfathered in," said Manning.
Green also said AFS was not cited for any violation on Wednesday.
According to Lt. Scott Little with the Gloucester County Sheriff's Office, evacuations were issued for residential homes and businesses in the 2700 to 2800 block of Kemp Lane and Peppers Road as well as George Washington Memorial Highway from Chapman Drive to Powhatan Drive.
A shelter was opened at Bellamy United Methodist Church located at 4870 Chestnut Fork Rd. The area was deemed safe by 9 a.m. and residents and employees could return to their homes and businesses.
Crews from Abingdon Fire and Rescue and Gloucester County Sheriff's Office set up a command post at the intersection of Powhatan Drive and George Washington Memorial Highway.
George Washington Memorial Highway, also known as Route 17, was closed in both directions in the area and traffic was detoured through Powhatan Drive to Kemp Lane and Chapman Drive for several hours. The road reopened by 12:15 p.m.
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