GRANITEVILLE - Avondale Mills officials, fearful of corrosive chlorine damage at seven textile mills and offices closest to the wreck of Norfolk Southern Train 192, say the facilities are in better shape than anticipated and vowed to again open all of their Graniteville operations.
However, the company's computerized records, including those for plants in Alabama and Georgia, including one in Augusta, were destroyed when an estimated 60 tons of chlorine came out of a tank car ruptured in the wreck, killing nine people, including six company employees, said Stephen Felker Sr., the company's chief executive officer.
The company's data processing center is located yards from the wreck site, and chlorine has a corrosive impact on delicate computer circuitry. The company's financial records is included in the lost data.
"We are having to estimate pay and reconstruct some data," Mr. Felker said. "But we are encouraged that the damage is not worse."
But he said members of several hazardous materials teams have inspected equipment inside the plants. He said most of the machines appear to be in good condition, although some will have to cleaned and lubricated.
Avondale Mills employees have been paid while the plants have been closed and paychecks have been made available for them to pick up, Mr. Felker said. He said Norfolk Southern Corp. has not helped Avondale Mills financially yet, but said "they will do the right thing."
"One hundred percent of the employees I have talked to said they will come back to work," Mr. Felker said.
Four Aiken County schools on the fringe of the evacuation zone opened Wednesday as Avondale Mills officials tried to jump-start operations at three textile mills and a warehouse as salvage workers continued to pump chlorine from tanker cars damaged in the wreck.
At midnight Tuesday, siphoning operations shifted to the third and final tank car laden with an estimated 90 tons of chlorine, said state Rep. Roland Smith, R-Langley, an indication that the dangerous and delicate transfer is nearing completion.
With a transfer estimated to take between 16 to 24 hours, salvage workers could be finished between 6 p.m. and midnight Wednesday, raising the possibility that some of the estimated 5,400 residents evacuated after the Jan. 6 wreck could return to their homes.
Federal environmental technicians in protective suits also entered Avondale Mills' Gregg Division plant Wednesday night and registered no chlorine readings on their monitoring devices, said Jim Beasley, spokesman for the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control. The Gregg Division is one of seven Avondale Mills plants and offices in the "hot zone" of the wreck site.
"That's a good sign," Mr. Beasley said of the technicians' findings.
As authorities edged closer to letting some evacuees return to homes on the outer edges of the one-mile evacuation zone that has been in effect since the afternoon after the wreck, state and federal officials moved to give residents and businesses a break on tax filing deadlines.
South Carolina Department of Revenue officials said taxpayers affected by the disaster would be granted extensions on filing and paying taxes, suspension of enforced collections of assessed liabilities, waivers of penalties and replacement copies of destroyed tax returns, free of charge.
Kevin Bishop, a spokesman for U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, said his office is working with Internal Revenue Service officials to provide similar relief from federal income tax requirements.
Meanwhile, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services officials are developing how-to packets for evacuees to advise them on precautions to take when returning to their homes. These will include instructions on the care of clothing, the cleaning of cars, the handling of food and vegetables and checks on wells and well water. In addition, Norfolk Southern officials will provide free monitoring of homes for chlorine contamination.
On Wednesday, Aiken County sheriff's deputies arrested a Vaucluse woman, Lana Green, 38, of Senn Street, on charges of obtaining property under false pretenses. Investigators are also checking reports of more than 60 people who visited license offices in North Augusta, Aiken and Edgefield to change their driver's licenses to a Graniteville address so they could fraudulently apply for expenses from Norfolk Southern's reimbursement center, said Lt. Michael Frank, a spokesman for the sheriff's office.
The first day back at Midland Valley High School and Warrenville Elementary School went surprisingly well, said Troy Nobles, the assistant superintendent for Area 3 schools in Aiken County.
"We have some students who are coming in late, but the staff turnout was very good," he said.
Bus routes had to maneuver through road blocks. In some areas, there were fewer pupils riding the bus, Mr. Nobles said. He said students who arrived late Wednesday morning were not penalized and were given excused tardies.
"We are going to call it like it is - (students will be marked) present or absent," Mr. Nobles said. "We know that Highway 421 is having to take on extra traffic from Highway 78 and other roads."
Mr. Nobles said members of the Aiken County School District will meet with law enforcement officials Friday afternoon to determine whether Leavelle McCampbell Middle School, Byrd Elementary School and Freedman Parenting Center can be reopened.
The Aiken County school board talked at its Tuesday night meeting about possible alternative solutions to educate the students at the affected schools if they are not able to have classes at these schools in the near future.
The board voted to not use Monday's Martin Luther King Jr. holiday as a makeup day for schools that have missed days because of the accident.
School board Chairman John Bradley said Tuesday night that district officials are remaining optimistic that the three closed schools will be usable.
"But should we find those schools unusual, the only solution is to do double sessions at Warrenville Elementary and Langley Bath Clearwater Middle schools," Dr. Bradley said.
The school would have to have approval from the state Department of Education to hold the double sessions. Dr. Bradley said the temporary option would consist of a shortened school day for the students who already attend these two schools, followed by half-day sessions for students from the Graniteville schools. Only core academic subjects would be taught, Dr. Bradley said.
U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett and U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint met with emergency officials Wednesday morning at the Aiken command center to be briefed about cleanup operations. Both men joined U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson and Gov. Mark Sanford in requesting President Bush to make an emergency disaster declaration.
"This is one of the worst chemical spills in the country in the last 25 years," Mr. DeMint said.
Mr. Barrett said that what has been learned at the accident scene can be applied to future emergencies.
"We've learned the short cuts and the get-it-right numbers that need to be shared," Mr. Barrett said. "Agencies need to save these reports and don't just put them in a drawer, but use them."
Reach Jim Nesbitt at (803) 648-1395, ext. 111 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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