WEST TERRE HAUTE —
A small chlorine gas leak at a West Terre Haute Water Works facility prompted evacuation of a school and it will result in system changes so that a similar problem doesn’t happen again, town officials said.
The evacuation of West Vigo Elementary was precautionary, said Superintendent Dan Tanoos. Students and staff finished the school day at Sugar Creek Consolidated.
No one suffered any serious health problems, Tanoos said, although a few teachers said their eyes “were a little watery.”
The leak happened Friday morning at a concrete structure, or small tower, located east of the school. It belongs to the West Terre Haute Water Works and is where chlorine is injected into the water system, said Mike Stewart, battalion chief for the Sugar Creek Fire Department.
The structure had a leak in the injection system, releasing chlorine gas outside, he said.
In most cases, it would not have been a major concern but the wind was out of the southeast, which put the chlorine gas leak “right on course with the school,” Stewart said.
The fire department arrived at the scene about 10:30 a.m. and West Terre Haute police also responded. Someone in the vicinity of the tower who smelled the chlorine gas notified authorities.
The chlorine was shut off and the school’s HVAC system had to be shut down, Stewart said.
While there was a slight odor in the school, the Honey Creek Fire Department was called to test the school for chlorine, and the testing showed a “very, very small amount” well below OSHA safety thresholds, Stewart said.
School district officials also quickly responded, and Tanoos decided to evacuate West Vigo Elementary. “I felt it was in the best interest of staff and children,” he said.
Before noon, about 300 students were bused to Consolidated, and teachers either rode a bus or drove their own cars. School resumed there.
Two school nurses went to both West Vigo and Consolidated to check on students and staff and make sure there were no serious health issues, Tanoos said.
According to Stewart, the leak was caused by a mechanical failure in the injection system.
When the pumps would run, chlorine would be released into the atmosphere rather than injected into the water line, Stewart said.
The structure was built to contain leaks and if one occurred inside it, there was an alarm system in the building that was supposed to go off and notify town officials. But in this situation, the release occurred outside of the structure, Stewart said.
Scott McClain, West Terre Haute town council president, said the leak “had the potential to be bad,” but fortunately, it was quickly contained by the Sugar Creek Fire Department. He praised the quick response of all involved.
He attributed the leak to a bypass valve that failed.
But the incident served as a wake-up call to West Terre Haute officials and the community, and some changes in the system will be made to make it safer, McClain said. “We want to make it as safe as we can with it being that close to the school.”
He estimated the structure is about 150 yards east of the school.
As of Friday afternoon, a company was on its way to repair the system later in the day. “They will also put in a backup system that will shut the tanks off completely if this ever happens again,” McClain said.
The system will be put back into operation temporarily, but as soon as possible, town officials intend to find an alternative to chlorine to treat the water, either by using ultraviolet light or a different, less hazardous chemical.
It also will require installing a new treatment system, he said. “Everything will have to be updated.” He hoped that could occur in as soon as a week.
“We don’t want this to happen again. We want to act as quickly as possible to get the potential hazard removed as quickly as we can,” McClain said.
Because the injection system has been turned off and no chlorine is being put into the water, the West Terre Haute Water Works issued a boil order for West Terre Haute and Sugar Creek Township, and the order is in effect until further notice.
Once repairs are completed Friday, the town will have to test water twice, once after 24 hours and the next time after 48 hours, to make sure it is safe to drink. At that point, the boil order can be lifted.
At the earliest, that would be about noon Monday, McClain said, and if samples fail, that will push back when the boil order is lifted, he said.
Sue Loughlin can be reached at 812-231-4235 or firstname.lastname@example.org.