Photo by Ruta Smith

The German-owned Lanxess chemical plant in Charleston is investigating why a highly toxic gas leaked last week at the trouble-plagued facility. The release occurred at 1:30 p.m. on May 24 at the plant just north of Charleston’s Rosemont community in the Neck Area.

In Rosemont, problems at the plant raised concern among residents who recall a June 17, 1991, explosion at what was then known as the Albright & Wilson chemical plant. The massive explosion killed nine workers and injured dozens. More recently, a chemical leak and fire on Nov. 28, 2019, required Rosemont residents to take shelter in their home and shut down Interstate 26.

During the May 24 incident, workers were clearing out lines when a leak of phosphorus trichloride occurred in a secondary containment building, according to a company statement. 

A website run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration describes phosphorus trichloride as: A colorless or slightly yellow fuming liquid with a pungent and irritating odor resembling that of hydrochloric acid. Causes severe burns to skin, eyes and mucous membranes. Very toxic by inhalation, ingestion and skin absorption. Reacts with water to evolve hydrochloric acid, an irritating and corrosive gas apparent as white fumes. Used during electrodeposition of metal on rubber and for making pesticides, surfactants, gasoline additives, plasticizers, dyestuffs, textile finishing agents, germicides, medicinal products, and other chemicals.

The leak was fully contained, the Lanxess statement said, when the chemical mixed with the humid air, turning the phosphorus trichloride fumes into a vapor cloud that traveled across the site then dissipated quickly. (An information sheet by the National Institutes of Health notes the chemical “Decomposes rapidly in moist air.”) 

Lanxess has 90 employees at the 122-acre site where they manufacture phosphorus trichloride and numerous derivative products such as flame-retardant additives and intermediate products for the agrochemicals industry.

Site manager Michael Jansen said the release was small and didn’t require sounding an alarm to warn Rosemont residents to go inside their homes. An on-site alarm however, did sound to warn employees to shelter in place, but, said Jansen, the emergency was over within minutes. He added the company is investigating to determine what happened to prevent future releases.

In the wake of the leak, the company notified the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control. “The release was contained on site and there are no known injuries, exposures or environmental impacts as a result of the incident,” said Ron Aiken, DHEC media relations director. Although the Charleston Fire Department was called, a fire crew was not dispatched, officials said.

The company said Rosemont residents were notified of the leak, but Idell Frazier Sass, said she didn’t learn of the incident until a Charleston City Paper reporter called her. Sass lives on the north end of the community closest to the plant. “Nobody told me anything,” she said this week. “I am concerned. I’ll need to get out if something really, really happens.”

Although this mishap was minor, Rep. Wendell Gilliard, D-Charleston, said small events can lead to large accidents like the fatal explosion and fire 31 years ago that rattled homes in Rosemont. At that time, Gilliard was an employee at the plant when it was operated by Albright & Wilson. Later French-owned Rhodia SA purchased the plant. In 2003, Gilliard said he filed a safety complaint against Rhodia, and was subsequently fired. Gilliard said he was particularly concerned about the May 24 incident not only because people currently live near the plant, but thousands more are due in the coming decade as the massive Magnolia development is built on the upper Neck Area next to I-26. “I think attention should always be high next to a chemical plant,” Gilliard said. “The only way the chemical plant can neutralize those types of concerns is by providing more outreach programs and stronger dialogue with other communities with Rosemont being first.” Gilliard added that the company should offer: “more jobs to Rosemont and surrounding communities and keep everyone updated on their process and methods concerning their safety procedures.”

In the wake of the November 2019 incident at Lanxess, DHEC conducted comprehensive air inspections on March 10, 2020, and March 12, 2022. A risk management program inspection was also conducted on Feb. 27, 2019, Aiken said. Following those inspections, DHEC didn’t cite the company with any violations.

Lanxess purchased the Charleston plant in 2018. Jansen said, “We have more than 150 years of experience in chemical production. Our big focus is on safe operations. We have initiated a program to minimize the risk, which is much better than it was at that time (in 1991). Nevertheless, of course, everything we do here is safety.”

Lanxess also operates a plant in the Bushy Park Industrial Complex in Goose Creek where it manufactures rubber additive products.

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