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Flood of acidic water breaches berm at Idaho fertilizer plant

Associated Press The Spokesman-Review

BOISE – Enough acid-laced water to fill more than five Olympic-sized swimming pools breached a berm at an eastern Idaho fertilizer manufacturer, inundating a nearby farmer’s field but injuring nobody, the plant manager and state officials said Thursday.

The accident, which occurred early Wednesday, prompted officials at Calgary, Alberta-based Agrium Inc.’s plant about 10 miles north of Soda Springs to call in clean-up consultants who work on railroad spills, as well as state and federal environmental officials, to survey the scene.

The 3.5 million gallons of acidic water that gushed over the protective berm surrounding a 20- to 30-foot-high storage area – called a “gypsum stack” – is used to turn ore from the nearby Rasmussen Ridge mine into phosphoric acid, Charlie Ross, manager of the Agrium’s Conda Phosphate Operations, said Thursday.

The water normally carries the waste product “phosphogypsum” from the processing plant to the gypsum stack before being recycled, but something happened to damage a 16-inch-by-20-foot section of the surrounding berm, causing the liquid to gush as far away from the plant as a quarter-mile.

“We immediately notified the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality, and we’re working with them on addressing the situation,” Ross said.

Federal Environmental Protection Agency investigators were traveling to the site Thursday. Department of Environmental Quality regulators were studying how to clean up the remaining water, which wound up in two low-lying areas.

Mark Dietrich, the state agency’s regional administrator in Pocatello who inspected the spill Thursday morning, said that after the standing water is removed, work may continue into the spring, either to remove contaminated soil or neutralize what acidic residue remains.

“The immediate action is to get at the standing liquid so it doesn’t migrate down through the soil,” Dietrich said.

The acidic solution is unlikely to cause health problems, Dietrich added, although it might cause some itching if a person’s skin came into contact with it.

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