An ammonia spill at Sappi Fine Paper last week gave Westbrook its first chance to participate in a cleanup since the city entered into a formal hazmat agreement with other area communities early this month.

According to Westbrook Fire Chief Gary Littlefield, the spill was contained and no one was hurt other than heat exhaustion suffered by a Sappi employee.

“Approximately 125 milliliters of 30-percent aqua ammonia was released onto the operating floor due to a leak between a valve and connector on a machine,” said Sappi spokesperson Brooke Carey.

Carey said mill staff used a hose to force the ammonia spill down a drain to the mill sewer system, but because of the high heat and humidity that day, the ammonia vapors stayed in the air.

Ammonia vapors can irritate the mucous membranes and can have ill effects if a person is exposed to a high concentration without protective equipment, Carey said. She added that no one was injured during the spill or cleanup and the environment was never threatened.

Littlefield said the leak was contained to a small work area, but it took about four hours in temperatures around 90 degrees for the hazmat team to flush the area and make sure the leak was cleaned up properly.

Littlefield said the call came around 11:30 a.m. from the mill, which he said has the capability to deal with small leaks or mishaps, but called for help in this case.

Westbrook firefighters responded as part of the Presumpscot Valley Hazmat team-a group of local firefighters, paramedics, police officers and scuba divers trained to respond to dangerous chemical spills and disasters. They were joined by firefighters from Windham, Gorham and Scarborough as part of the team. Firefighters from Portland, Gorham and Falmouth covered Westbrook’s stations while city firefighters worked on the spill.

According to Westbrook City Administrator Jerre Bryant, the city has participated in the area hazmat team for years but never joined in a formal agreement with the communities it partnered with.

“We’ve always been a part of it, but we reached a point where we needed to have a formal written agreement,” he said because more equipment is involved these days.

The team has two vehicles already-a converted bread truck and a school bus-and in December it will take delivery of a new truck designed specifically for hazmat responses, according to Gorham Deputy Fire Chief Ken Fickett. The truck is being paid for by a $300,000 Homeland Security grant.

The team’s coordinator John True said the team began about 18 years ago as a county team primarily dealing with chemical spills in factories or at trucking accidents on highways.

For most of that time, it has operated as separate communities responding to accidents together but each accounting for their own training costs. Whatever community the spill took place in, that community billed the private business responsible for the spill and each community was reimbursed for their help.

With this new agreement, the participating communities are joined as a single entity with a budget and a board that administers the team. According to Littlefield, it works better this way.

“It gives it a better structure,” said Littlefield. “It’s a lot more streamlined.”

Last week at Sappi, the hazmat team worked in chemical protection suits in the high heat from 11:30 a.m. to about 3:30 p.m. cleaning up the leak. Littlefield said they first sent a few team members in to determine the extent of the leak and the danger. After determining that the leak had not spread beyond an enclosed work area, they proceeded to flush ammonia from a reserve tank used to collect overflow from the system.

According to Littlefield, the biggest problem on the day was the high heat while performing the cleanup, which he said is a laborious, time-consuming process made slower by the many safety precautions the hazmat team has to take. Littlefield said one Sappi plant employee suffered from heat exhaustion during the day but was recovering.

Beyond the heat, Littlefield said the cleanup was a “pretty textbook operation.”

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