Chemical cloud over Kansas community dissipates

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ATCHISON, Kan. (AP) — A chemical spill at a northeast Kansas distilling plant released a noxious cloud of fumes Friday, forcing temporary evacuations and sending more than 30 people to the hospital, officials said.

The spill occurred at the MGP Ingredients plant in Atchison, according to Katie Horner, spokeswoman for the Kansas Department of Emergency Management. She said the spill occurred as two chemicals, sulfuric acid and sodium hypochlorite, were mistakenly combined at the plant, which produces premium distilled spirits and employs about 300 people.

About 34 people were taken to hospitals, City Manager Trey Cocking said at a news conference after the cloud had dissipated. Becky Berger, assistant city manager, said five of those were city employees who were treated for respiratory difficulties and later released.

Homes and schools near the plant had been evacuated early Friday, but city officials gave the all clear for residents to return before noon. Atchison has about 11,000 residents and is about 50 miles northwest of Kansas City.

“The threat is really over, and it’s safe to be outside,” Berger said. She advised residents to air out homes that smell like a swimming pool.

The regional office of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said it was supporting state and local emergency crews and had sent a coordinator to the site to assess the situation.

MGP didn’t immediately return calls seeking comment.

Chris Gitro, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said wind conditions helped the plume break up.

“The one thing we had on our side was that the winds were enough to make it disperse,” he said.

Pinpointing the cloud’s direction proved to be a guessing game while it was still in Atchison. As one school building’s students sought shelter in the gymnasium, students in the other three buildings were shuttled in buses first toward a Wal-Mart before being redirected to the local airport, schools Superintendent Susan Myers said. The buses were eventually directed again to Wal-Mart, she said.

“They were trying to figure out the wind, where this cloud was going. It was a very fluid situation,” she said. “I would say it was very anxiety-provoking to have this kind of situation. I’m sure this was an adventuresome day for everyone.”

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