Monday, January 23, 2006

Graniteville, SC: One Year Later

One of the more chilling workplace and environmental incidents of last year was the chlorine release in Graniteville, SC that killed nine workers, the train's engineer and eight workers in an adjacent Avondale Mills factory, after a train carrying pressurized chlorine gas crashed into a parked train on Jan. 6, 2005.

In addition to the nine workers killed -- 240 were injured and more than 5,000 residents were forced to flee the poisonous gas that seeped into their homes for days.

That event was over a year ago, but the effects linger, not just in the physical health of the residents, but in the economic and social health of the community.
"It has been one thing after another," said Logan, an inspector for the Douglas Schmidt Law Office, which represents 600 residents and business owners who say the spill harmed their property or their health.

As a result of the corrosive gas, Patricia Courtney's clocks stopped telling time; Melinda Borst's television turned itself on and off; and the organ at Graniteville's First Baptist Church emitted sound erratically.

Many residents fear that this close-knit community will never recover from the train derailment, the deadliest train wreck involving hazardous material since 1978. They worry about the future of Avondale Mills, the 13-acre industrial complex in the heart of town. In October, the company announced plans to lay off 350 workers and sue Norfolk Southern for "catastrophic damage" to its machinery.

Norfolk Southern has estimated that it would spend $39 million cleaning up the accident and paying legal claims.

"The chlorine damage is more insidious than anyone expected," said Stephen Felker, Avondale Mills' manager of corporate development.

According to papers filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, the company had spent $52.5 million on cleanup costs by August, the end of its fiscal year.
And the physical and emotional health of the residents isn't great either:
Within 48 hours of the crash, the department conducted an epidemiological assessment of nearly 300 people. Nearly 80 percent experienced symptoms such as severe coughing, burning eyes, chest pains, skin rashes, headaches, dizziness and nausea.

Jerry Gibson, director of the department's Bureau of Disease Control, said a follow-up of half of those people last summer found that 80 percent were still experiencing symptoms.

Inside her Graniteville home on Laurel Drive, Melinda Borst notices that fewer neighbors walk outside or spend time in their yards.

"They just do what they have to do, and then they come inside," she said. "It's like the whole community has suffered a death."
Graniteville is a small community. Imagine the incredible devastation if this had happened in the middle of a large city....

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