Federal authorities investigating chemical leak, explosion at Menasha paper mill

Tuesday, Mar 17, 2015

Federal authorities say they are investigating a chemical leak and explosion at a Menasha paper mill that forced people out of their homes.

No one was injured in the blast at SCA Tissue, but dozens of homes south of the plant were evacuated shortly after 8 a.m. Monday morning.

“Just a loud explosion, sounded like a crack of thunder, real close to the house,” said Jon Muska, who lives on Lock St., just south of the plant.

Muska says he woke up and looked outside and saw what he thought what a cloud of steam coming from the mill. About a half-hour later there was a knock on his door.

“It was the fire department,” he said. “They were asking everybody to evacuate, because of a chemical spill.”

“Upon our arrival and further investigation we did note there was a vapor cloud that was emanating from the building also there was some liquid on the ground, outside the building, which also had some vapors coming off of it,” said Assistant Chief Mike Sipin of the Neenah-Menasha Fire Department.

Authorities say an “organic polymer” was being unloaded at the plant when it leaked and came into contact with another chemical, sodium hypochlorite – a more concentrated form of household bleach. Both are used in cleaning water from the paper making process.

The two reacted, creating heat and an explosion that blew off a portion of a roof of the plant, as by design, where the chemicals are located.

“That created a reaction that resulted in a buildup of heat and ultimately cause a small explosion that occurred in the onsite storage vessel, in a building on the southwest corner of the facility,” Sipin said.

Sodium hypochlorite is corrosive and can cause skin burns and irritation when contacted or inhaled in large amounts.

Homes to the south of the plant were evacuated as a gas plume filled the air. Hazardous-materials crews were called in from Oshkosh and Appleton to handle the spill. Sipin says the spill was contained before it could reach the sewer system and the evacuation was precautionary.

“Just for the sole purpose of safety, in the event we had a wind shift and the product was being blown over this way.”

The evacuation order was lifted by early afternoon.

SCA officials say the incident impacted only a small part of the plant and some operations.

“Safety is our top priority at our plant, for our employees – certainly for the community,” said SCA Vice President of Communications Amy Bellcourt in a phone interview with FOX 11, “So, we will evaluate exactly what happened. We’re still investigating this now and if any changes in how we handle deliveries of these materials are required, we will certainly make them.”

The Federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration – OSHA – says it is investigating the case. A full report could take at least six months to complete.

The Swedish company bought the one-time Wisconsin Tissue Plant from Georgia-Pacific more than ten years ago.

According to OSHA, one inspection complaint was filed in December of last year for violating housekeeping, plant safety and record keeping practices. OSHA’s area director says the agency considers those somewhat minor infractions.


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