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There Was an Acid Leak in My Neighborhood: Now What?

By Casey Cora | August 7, 2014 8:09am
 Crews work to clean up the site of a chemical spill at 35th Street and Western Avenue.
Crews work to clean up the site of a chemical spill at 35th Street and Western Avenue.
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Illinois Department of Transportation

ARMOUR SQUARE — A hazardous material spill prompted by a leaking tanker truck prompted a huge response Wednesday by city and state authorities to 35th Street and Wentworth Avenue.

As the cleanup of the spill site continues, here's a look at some information residents around U.S. Cellular Field might want to know:

Wait, so what happened?

A tanker truck carrying muriatic acid started leaking on Wentworth near 35th, just outside U.S. Cellular Field. Likely caused by a malfunctioning bolt system, the leak drew a major "hazmat," or hazardous materials, response and closed nearby roads on Wednesday.

The Chicago Fire Department was quick to say no injuries were reported in connection with the spill. A team spokesman from the White Sox said a fan using the CTA "L" train to get to the ballpark visited the stadium's first aid station as a precaution.

Is the spill cleaned up yet?

Sort of. Authorities have "neutralized" the spill by covering it with soda ash, a bicarbonate.

They're still working to clean it up, which could take some time — a separate tanker truck was called to the scene Wednesday evening to pump out the remaining acid from the damaged tanker.

After that, contractors will use a front-loader to scrape up what's left of the bicarbonate powder and "put it in a container for final disposal ... and what's left on the ground they'll rinse with water," Chicago Fire Department spokesman Larry Langford said.

OK. Still sounds dangerous. What are the risks?

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rates muriatic acid, also called hydrochloric acid, as a toxic substance.

The agency says acute, or short-term, exposure through inhalation can cause "eye, nose, and respiratory tract irritation and inflammation" in humans. It can also cause pulmonary edema, or a fluid buildup in the lungs.

Longer-term exposure — if you work around it all the time, for example — can do even more damage, like causing chronic skin and lung issues.

I don't smell anything or feel woozy. Am I good to go?

Probably. Langford said "there's nothing to be concerned about" and an on-site representative from the state's EPA said there doesn't appear to be concern for impact on local residents.

"We've kept it out of the sewer and the product is not airborne," Langford said.

Great, but what if I live in the neighborhoods by the ballpark, say, Armour Square or Bronzeville?

Again, authorities say there's no danger to residents surrounding the ballpark.

A spokesman for the federal transportation department's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration said liquid spills of hydrochloric acid should be isolated in at least 150 feet in every direction, just to be safe.

So looked at one way, the tanker couldn't have picked a better place to start spilling — the spill site is immediately surrounded by a mostly empty parking lot and the Dan Ryan Expressway, and the closest homes are roughly a half-mile away.

Will my commute be affected?

Perhaps. As of Wednesday evening, the CTA Red Line 35th/Sox stop was reopened to passengers, but commuters were getting sent to the 33rd Street entrance to board and exit the platform.

And if you take the bus, you'll want to give yourself extra time. The No. 24 (Wentworth), No. 35 (35th Street) and No. 39 (Pershing Road) were getting rerouted around the cleanup site.

The CTA said to keep an eye on its official Twitter account for updates.

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