A deadly hydrogen sulfide gas leak at a tank truck unloading area at the Georgia-Pacific Naheola pulp and paper mill in Pennington, Alabama, was caused by a lack of good engineering and process safety practices, according to information from the US Chemical Safety Board. The January 16, 2002, accident that claimed two lives and injured eight occurred at a drain connected to an acidic process sewer system.
When the sewer connection was constructed, the plant was owned by the James River Corporation, which later merged with Fort Howard and was acquired by Georgia-Pacific, according to board information.
The board recommended that Georgia-Pacific Corporation review sewer system safety at all its plants to prevent the inadvertent mixing of potentially reactive chemicals, including those that can form toxic gases. The board also requested that Georgia-Pacific identify plant areas (such as truck unloading areas) where there is a risk of hydrogen sulfide release, and require appropriate safeguards and training for all workers in those areas.
On the day of the incident, sodium hydrosulfide, a process chemical that had spilled in the unloading area, reacted to release hydrogen sulfide gas when it contacted acidic material in the sewer. The toxic gas vented from the sewer through a nearby fiberglass manhole cover and engulfed the workers. The two deaths and all but one of the injuries occurred among employees of Burkes Construction who were working in the vicinity on an unrelated construction project.
The board concluded that neither Georgia-Pacific nor the previous plant owners adequately analyzed or controlled the hazards of the sewer system, including the potential for hazardous chemical reactions. In September 2002, the board completed a special investigation which recommended that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) develop more comprehensive regulatory coverage for reactive hazards.