Atchison residents hopeful federal investigation findings help prevent future chemical leaks

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- It could have been prevented. That’s what one of the investigations into a chemical leak in Atchison in 2016, has found so far. The leak happened in October, at the MPGI plant that processes specialty wheat protein, and starch.

An independent federal agency released its preliminary findings Wednesday, and folks in Atchison hope it’s enough to prevent another leak.

As those preliminary finding are released, folks recounted the October day when a noxious cloud of gas filled the sky, as well as what they want the company responsible to do moving forward. October 21, 2016.

It was a morning not like many others for folks in Atchison.

“As a member of the Benedictine sisters we were in lockdown that day and just prayed for the safety of everybody,” said Sister Anne Shepard.

"Went home, got my family, we all got assemble and we left town for the day,” said Cameron, who was excused from school that day because of the leak.

A plume of chemicals blanketed part of the city, sending more than 100 people to several hospitals, some with trouble breathing. It also led to the evacuation of thousands. Many residents were told to stay in their homes at one point.

Now, six months later, investigators say it was all preventable.

“Neither MGI nor Harcros followed internal chemical unloading procedures at the time of the incident," said Lucy Tyler, investigator in charge of the Chemical Safety Board.

Preliminary findings released from the Chemical Safety Board or CSB, point to operator error. CSB investigators think a worker at MGP may have left a cap unlocked on a fill line to sodium hypochloride. When a driver from Harcros Chemicals showed up, he accidentally unloaded sulfuric acid into the unlocked cap, thinking it was the one he needed to use.

“As a result of the incorrect connection 4,000 gallons of sulfuric acid from the truck was discharged into a nearly full tank of sodium hypochloride, also referred to as bleach,” said Tyler.

CSB investigators also found poorly labeled chemicals, and lines just 18-inches apart between the two reactive chemicals. Investigators released their findings to MPG hoping they’ll take them to heart. One resident is confident the company will do what it can to improve.

“I am very pro-MGP in the sense that they will make sure that everything in their power they will put in the safety rules so that this doesn’t happen again,” said Sister Anne Sheperd.

“Hopefully they’ve learned their lesson this time and they can set better standards for this,” said Cameron. MPG released the following statement following the findings:

"ATCHISON, KAN., APRIL 12, 2017--Since the incident on October 21, 2016 at our specialty wheat protein and starch facility in Atchison, Kansas, MGPI Processing, Inc. has cooperated fully with federal, state and local agencies in their ongoing investigations. In addition, we are currently making every effort to enhance our operations so this type of situation does not happen again. As part of this effort, we hired Burns & McDonnell to provide a comprehensive review of our loading, unloading, and chemical storage methods to strengthen the safety of our systems.

Over the past six months, we have worked closely with members of the community who sought medical attention following the incident to cover costs associated with treatment. We have paid for the medical treatment and related expenses, including ambulance services and radiology and pharmacy bills of 134 individuals who sought care at area providers, including Atchison Hospital, Holton Community Hospital, Lawrence Memorial Hospital, Hiawatha Community Hospital, St. Luke’s Hospital, Mosaic Life Care in St. Joseph, and others.

We are thankful for the emergency responders, including the Atchison Fire and Police Departments, City and County officials, and the Kansas Highway Patrol, as well as the EPA and OSHA, who came together with us to quickly and effectively respond to the situation and keep our community safe. We are grateful to Atchison Hospital and the many other medical service providers who provided care to those impacted. Since the event, we have worked proactively with City and County first responders to assess our collective response and further augment emergency response planning.

MGP appreciates the important work that the Chemical Safety Board (CSB) performs to assist in the prevention of incidents. The company understands that CSB’s findings are preliminary and could be subject to change as further information is forthcoming.

MGP is proud of our history in Atchison and the strong partnership we have with the City. We are committed to being a good corporate citizen and to doing what is right by the members of our community."