Community evacuation ordered after zinc plant fire releases toxic sulfuric acid in NC

People living within a half mile of a burning North Carolina zinc processing plant were told shortly after 2 a.m. Monday that they should leave their homes or risk exposure to possibly toxic substances in the air.

Rutherford County sheriff’s deputies went door-to-door to warn people to leave after the American Zinc Processing facility in Mooresboro caught fire late Sunday, releasing potentially toxic chemicals. The town is about 65 miles west of Charlotte.

Rutherford County Assistant Fire Marshal John Greenway told Fox Carolina the biggest environmental concern is sulfuric acid that has been released into the air.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says sulfuric acid is a corrosive substance that can harm the skin, eyes and lungs, and “severe exposure can result in death.”

County officials posted the evacuation notice on Facebook shortly after 2 a.m. Monday. The fire was described as “large” and photos posted on Facebook by the Chesnee Community Fire Department showed flames and black smoke shooting 60 to 75 feet into the air. It was extinguished around 7 a.m. Monday, but smoke continued to rise from the ashes.

“Rutherford County Emergency Management is now advising that as a precaution, a half mile evacuation is currently in effect due to the air quality,” said a post on the Rutherford County Facebook page.

A temporary emergency shelter was opened shortly before 8 a.m. at the Chase High School auxiliary gymnasium, 1603 Chase High Road, officials said.

People in the area were also told to keep off U.S. 221 and other roads surrounding American Zinc Processing.

The Rutherford County Fire Marshal ordered firefighters to retreat from the fire after “their gear tested positive for hazardous materials,” reported WSOC.

The crews continued to douse the flames with “unmanned nozzles,” and had the fire out around 7:15 a.m. Monday, according to WLOS.

American Zinc Recycling, which owns the plant, issued a statement at 11:30 a.m. Monday through the marketing firm Crawford Strategy, noting it was cooperating in an investigation of the fire. American Zinc also lauded the “quick action” of fire responders.

“We applaud the courageous efforts of the fire departments in fighting this blaze. They have successfully contained the fire, with no injuries to any of our employees, who have all been accounted for. We are cooperating fully with state and local authorities to investigate the causes of the fire,” said the statement. “We are unable to comment further at this time.”

The Agency for Toxic Substances reports “inhaling large amounts of zinc can cause a specific short-term disease called metal fume fever, which is generally reversible once exposure to zinc ceases. However, very little is known about the long-term effects of breathing zinc dust or fumes.”

Fire officials reported on Facebook that the blaze was “contained within an area of the facility.”

Capt. Bill Greene of the Ellenboro Fire Department told Fox News Carolina no one was injured in the blaze and that in excess of 100 firefighters from more than 15 departments worked to put out the fire. He told the station he was not sure how it started.

Rutherford officials said the burning plant was formerly known as Horse Head Zinc. The plant is owned by American Zinc Recycling Corp, based in Pittsburgh. The company says on its web site that it operates a “a state-of-the-art solvent-extraction/electrowinning plant in Mooresboro.”

The company’s multiple processing facilities include sites in Barnwell, South Carolina, and Rockwood, Tennessee.

The Mooresboro site uses “low-cost, environmentally-friendly processes to selectively remove and refine valuable metals” to produce a “special high grade zinc,” says the company.

An October 2018 article in Recycling Today reported the Mooresboro plant had been idle for an extended period and American Zinc Recycling Corp intended to restart operations there in “late March or early April 2019.”

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