Originally created 01/31/98

Simulation tests readiness



LANGLEY -- The discovery was made about 2:30 p.m. Two 55-gallon drums, one containing ammonium hydroxide and the other filled with acrylic acid, had ruptured, spilling onto the grounds of Aiken Technical College.

Combined, the chemicals are flammable, even deadly. Within minutes, a 20-member hazardous materials team was transported to the spill.

Winds of 18 mph blew steadily from the northeast. And there was danger that the chemicals would seep into a storm drain, about 15 yards from an overturned barrel, which left little time to assess the situation, suit up and decontaminate the area.

Alan Willing and Jim Ballenger, two members of the entry team, moved in wearing banana-yellow vinyl suits and 30-minute oxygen tanks strapped to their backs.

A half-hour later, the danger was over. The barrels were sealed, placed into a plastic over-pack drum and shipped to a dump.

"The situation was intense for a few minutes, but we quickly got everything under control," said Mr. Ballenger, soaking wet and exhausted from wearing the 30-pound protective gear, which heated to about 95 degrees.

The scenario just described wasn't real. It was a simulated chemical spill, designed to test the skills of 20 students enrolled in Aiken Technical College's hazardous materials 24-hour response class. Instead of dangerous chemicals, the barrels contained oil and water.

Employees from Air Products and Chemicals Inc. in Langley, Beloit Manhattan in Aiken, and Coates Ink Inc. in Greenville were involved in the training.

Eerie was the word of the day as the class suited up in the gear.

"You're just worried about breathing," said Mr. Ballenger, a maintenance supervisor for Coates Ink. "The only things you can see are what's in front of you, which takes some getting used to."

Before Aiken Tech began offering the course in April, companies had to travel to Atlanta or Chicago for the training, which cost about $3,000 per student. The Aiken Tech class costs $250 per student.