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sulfur dioxide chemical spill
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56 people treated for possible chemical exposure after sulfur dioxide leak

Crews responded to Thatcher Chemical in Salt Lake City for a possible spill, which turned out to be hundreds of gallons of sulfur dioxide. Photo: Mary Richards, KSL

SALT LAKE CITY — 56 people have been treated for possible exposure to the chemical sulfur dioxide after an accident involving a rail car at an area business.

The Salt Lake City Fire Department said between 300 and 400 gallons of the toxic substance leaked at Thatcher Chemical, near 1900 W. 1200 S.

Of the 56 people who were treated for possible symptoms, just two wound up being transported to area hospitals for further attention due to exposure.

Reporters and other witnesses in the area said there was a strong “rotten egg” smell in the air. Officials said a rail car bumped into the hose of another car, spraying the chemical into the air and a retaining pond. It was not believed to have gotten into a nearby canal.

The Environmental Protection Agency says sulfur dioxide exposure in the air can damage the respiratory system and make breathing difficult. It can be used as a preservative and antioxidant in foods.

The EPA’s risk management database says Thatcher Chemical produces water treatment chemicals, including ammonia, chlorine and sulfur dioxide. At the time their last report was filed with the agency, the facility had 3,830,000 pounds of the substance on site.

The Department of Environmental Quality says this is not the first time this company has had spills or accidents.  Over the course of 29 years, they’ve found 12 accidents connected to Thatcher.  That may sound like a lot, but, DEQ Spokesman Jared Mendenhall says that’s less than one accident per year.

“It doesn’t necessarily raise a red flag.  There will be an investigation.  We will go out and take a look at what happened,” he says.

One of the more notable accidents happened in 1991, when a tanker coupler broke loose and spilled thousands of gallons of sulfur dioxide spilled.  Others include a tank explosion in 2004 and a cloud of sulfur dioxide being released in 1997.

Mendenhall says they were concerned about water in a nearby canal being contaminated, so, water quality crews checked it out.

“Their initial report, right now, is that that hasn’t been any issue or any compromise to that canal,” he adds.