Chemical cloud over Kansas community dissipates

ATCHISON, Kan. (AP) — A chemical spill at a northeast Kansas distilling plant released a noxious cloud of fumes Friday, forcing temporary evacuations and sending more than 50 people to the hospital, including one person who was in intensive care, officials said.

The spill occurred at the MGP Ingredients plant in Atchison, according to Katie Horner, spokeswoman for the Kansas Department of Emergency Management.

She said the spill occurred as two chemicals, sulfuric acid and sodium hypochlorite, were mistakenly combined at the plant, which produces premium distilled spirits and employs about 300 people.

Homes and schools near the plant had been evacuated early Friday, but city officials gave the all clear for residents to return before noon. Atchison has about 11,000 residents and is about 50 miles northwest of Kansas City.

“The threat is really over, and it’s safe to be outside,” said Becky Berger, assistant city manager. She advised residents to air out homes that smell like a swimming pool.

Fifty-two people sought medical attention at the Atchison Hospital emergency room, spokeswoman T.C. Roberts said, and one person remained in intensive care Friday afternoon. She said they were treated for upper respiratory discomfort.

Roberts said she didn’t know whether the person in the ICU was a plant employee. She also did not know how many people had been released, but that the hospital was following a protocol that included monitoring them for several hours. Patients were being released when appropriate, Roberts said.

The regional office of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said it was supporting state and local emergency crews and had sent a coordinator to the site to assess the situation.

MGP didn’t immediately return calls seeking comment.

Chris Gitro, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said wind conditions helped the plume break up.

“The one thing we had on our side was that the winds were enough to make it disperse,” he said.

Pinpointing the cloud’s direction proved to be a guessing game while it was still in Atchison. As one school building’s students sought shelter in the gymnasium, students in the other three buildings were shuttled in buses first toward a Wal-Mart before being redirected to the local airport, schools Superintendent Susan Myers said. The buses were eventually directed again to Wal-Mart, she said.

“They were trying to figure out the wind, where this cloud was going. It was a very fluid situation,” she said. “I would say it was very anxiety-provoking to have this kind of situation. I’m sure this was an adventuresome day for everyone.”

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