No Workers Killed in Toxic Powder Spill

ERs that closed after plant employees arrived for treatment reopen on Sunday.


Amanda PalleschiJoel Currier | | Tuesday, September 2, 2008

EAST ST. LOUIS -- A toxic powder spill at an East St. Louis plant on Saturday did not kill any workers, a top company official and the FBI confirmed, refuting a previous report that two people died in the accident.

Eight workers from Ro-Corp Inc., on North 20th Street, were still being treated at area hospitals on Sunday.

But no one died in the accident, said Steve Robins, president of G.S. Robins & Co., the St. Louis-based parent company of Ro-Corp.

The company, investigators and city officials still have many unanswered questions, including what caused the spill and why erroneous reports were released to media.

"We really don't know what happened here," Robins said.

East St. Louis City Manager Robert Betts was the source of the earlier reports, telling the Post-Dispatch and other media outlets Saturday night that two of the workers had died. He could not be reached for comment Sunday.

Hazardous materials workers spent the day checking the grounds of Ro-Corp for other contaminated areas.

"The problem is contained," Robins said.

Also on Sunday, two emergency rooms that closed after the workers showed up for treatment were reopened.

Robins said the chemical, nitroaniline, spilled when a worker or workers dropped a drum containing the powder. Nitroaniline is highly toxic and can attack the respiratory system and get into the bloodstream.

Six of the workers took showers at the facility, Robins said, before going to area hospitals for treatment. The other two workers, though, apparently went home to shower before heading to the hospital. Robins did not know why they did so.

Robins said the workers were not scheduled to be at the facility on Saturday but went in after a customer called in a special order.

The company's website says Ro-Corp is "a packaging/repackaging facility for dry materials. Bulk storage, rail access, milling and dry blending are among the services available at this site."

On Sunday, Robins described Ro-Corp as a "chemical wholesaler" that buys, packages and sells chemicals to manufacturers. Nitroaniline, he said, is used to make rubber.

Price McCarty, an FBI spokesman in Springfield, Ill., confirmed that the chemical spill caused no deaths.

McCarty said FBI agents were initially called to investigate whether the chemical release was linked to crime or terrorism but found no evidence of either.

Meanwhile, St. Anthony's Medical Center in St. Louis County and DePaul Health Center in Bridgeton both reopened their emergency rooms on Sunday afternoon. Each hospital was treating three workers from the mishap. The workers were listed in satisfactory or stable condition on Sunday.

St. Louis University Hospitalwas treating one worker who was listed in serious condition on Sunday. SLU did not have to shut down its ER because the hospital's decontamination area is detached from the emergency room.

Another injured worker went to Barnes-Jewish Hospital, but the ER there also remained open. The victim was released Sunday evening, a spokeswoman said.

East St. Louis Mayor Alvin Parks said he planned to talk to company officials to find out what happened and what kinds of chemicals the company handles.

"The greater East St. Louis community is not in danger and is very much stable," Parks said.

The area around the company Sunday afternoon was closed off. At least six workers in protective hazardous materials suits went in and out of the plant. Three hazardous materials trucks were parked outside the building, as were two ambulances to monitor the workers coming in and out.

Robins said Ro-Corp employees go through federally required training on how to handle chemicals and that the company has a 10-page safety manual on the handling of chemicals and the hazards involved.

Neighborhood residents on Sunday were curious, and concerned, about what happened at the facility, with some stopping by the scene.

August Thompson, 29, stopped with her young daughter after hearing news reports of the spill.

"I didn't realize it was this close," she said. "There are kids around here. Why wouldn't they deal with chemicals in another type of area?"

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