Company Knew of Leak Days Before Acid Spill

A new report shows that as much as five times the amount of acid leaked as previously known.


By Sarah Robertson

This article initially ran in the Montague Reporter. It is a follow up Robertson’s previous story.

COLRAIN – The state Department of Environmental Protection says an investigation is still underway into a sulfuric acid spill into a tributary of the North River that reportedly killed tens of thousands of fish last Labor Day weekend. Employees at the Barnhardt Manufacturing Company discovered a leak in a chemical storage tank six days before the spill, according to a December report. At least five times more acid was released into the brook than the company originally reported, and cleanup efforts have continued for months afterwards.

“MassDEP is reviewing enforcement options with the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office,” Catherine Skiba, deputy regional director of MassDEP’s Springfield office, told the Reporter this week. “Once the investigation is complete, we will be able to provide additional information.”

In the early morning hours of September 1, approximately 60 gallons of sulfuric acid were released into the environment from an outdoor storage tank at the Barnhardt facility, with 25 to 32 gallons making its way into the Tailrace Brook, a tributary of the North River. The company determined a corroded weld joint to be the cause of the failure.

These details were revealed in December in a 217-page report compiled by Omni Environmental Group (OEG), a consultant hired by Barnhardt to write the company’s immediate response action plan after the incident. The report described how Barnhardt employees discovered a leak on August 26 on an outdoor chemical storage tank containing sulfuric acid.

“[T]he drip was believed to be from a flange connection (or seal thereof) and determined to be small, slow and being entirely held within the concrete containment dike,” OEG’s report read. The employees applied baking soda to neutralize the acid that had leaked inside the containment area, the group said, “and initiated internal discussions” about removing the leaking tank and installing a new one.

According to state laws regulating the storage of hazardous chemicals, owners are required in the event of a leak into a secondary containment system to “remove all released materials within 24 hours or in as timely a manner as possible to prevent a threat to public health, safety, welfare, or the environment.”

The laws also require owners to “within 24 hours of the release or, if the owner or operator demonstrates that it is not possible, at the earliest practicable time, remove as much of the waste as is necessary to prevent further release of hazardous waste to the environment and to allow inspection and repair of the tank system.”

According to MassDEP,  when the leaking tank finally failed, most of the acid was captured by the concrete containment, but some had also “sprayed” from the corroded joint, making its way down a stormwater drainage swale and towards Tailrace Brook.

Employees discovered the release around 6 a.m. on September 1, and worked to stop it before notifying MassDEP around 8 a.m. In their initial Release Log Form filed with MassDEP’s Bureau of Waste Site Cleanup, the company estimated that 10 gallons of acid had been released.

“Approximately 6 gallons was sprayed over the containment and onto a drainage ditch,” a narrative in the report added. “No surface waters or storm drains were impacted.”

The Barnhardt facility uses a 93% solution of sulfuric acid during its cotton-bleaching process, as well as for treating industrial and domestic wastewater on site. According to the OEG report, the most recent delivery of sulfuric acid had been for 2,919 gallons. After the spill, employees removed 946 gallons of “virgin” acid and 1,920 gallons of used acid from the tank system, leaving 53 gallons unaccounted for.

Of the missing acid, between 25 to 32 gallons were believed to have been released into the river, with the rest soaking into subsurface soils.

Neither Barnhardt Company management nor a consultant from Omni Environmental Group responded to repeated requests for comment as of press time.

Believed To Be Minimal

Before private citizens started reporting a mass die-off of fish in the river later that day, neither the company nor MassDEP say they knew the acid had reached the waterway.

“…[T]he volume of impact to the Tailrace was believed to be minimal,” OEG’s report explained.

“According to BMC, it was unclear if the release had actually made it into the Tailrace or had just made it up to the end of the stormwater swale.”

The state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife (MassWildlife) later estimated that “tens of thousands” of fish died from up to seven different species including trout, dace, American eel, and common shiners. The longnose sucker, a protected species, is also present in the North River and was likely impacted by the acid spill, according to the Connecticut River Conservancy (CRC).

“In my sixteen years working for the CRC, I do not remember a fish kill this bad,” Andrea Donlon, a river steward for the CRC, told the Reporter.

No official public notification was made about the acid release on September 1, though the original release log form indicated the incident had posed an “imminent hazard.” However, MassDEP officials did warn some people downstream, advising them not to swim in the area “until further assessment could be done.”

“We have anecdotes that ‘the Police’ went around closing off swimming holes but would not say why,” Donlon wrote in a letter to MassDEP. “The public, and downstream communities as well as water districts, should know what is happening and why.”

News of the acid spill first circulated through photos of dead fish on Facebook, generating rumors and anxiety throughout the community.

“It really hit home because I work on the river. All the people I work with were worried about going into certain sections,” said Sam Rode, then an employee of Zoar Outdoors, who was one of the first to report the fish kill to authorities. “That was a really tough thing to hear.”

By the time officials sampled and tested water and soil downstream that afternoon, they found pH levels to be within a safe range. Meanwhile, MassWildlife officials collected fish for sampling downstream.

One week later locals staged a small protest outside the Barnhardt facility in an effort to draw attention to the incident and hold the company accountable.

“It’s a small enough community that not only do you know the company, you know personally people who work there,” Rode said. “I have that internal conflict, for sure.”

Cleaning Up The Mess

According to the OEG report, the subsurface soil near the tank contained residual sulfuric acid months after the incident, and was scheduled to be reexamined last month. At least ten 55-gallon drums of impacted soils, or 50 cubic yards of earth, were removed and transported to Stablex Canada, a hazardous waste disposal facility based in Blainville, Quebec.

The damaged 4,500-gallon metal storage tank was sent to the Freedman Recycling center in Springfield, according to the report, and the concrete containment dike was demolished and removed in late October, revealing more impacted soil. According to OEG, 170 pounds of baking soda were used to neutralize the affected surfaces.

Sulfuric acid is a highly corrosive solution that can dissolve most metals, causes severe burns to living organisms, and is toxic to plants and aquatic life. “Sulfuric acid can readily migrate through soils through via precipitation infiltration, is water soluble and can migrate with groundwater flow and/or ‘sink’ deeper into groundwater due to its specific gravity greater than water,” OEG’s report read.

Concerned about the acid’s impact on well water supplies, the Shelburne Falls Fire District sent a letter to MassDEP in October expressing their dismay that they hadn’t been notified sooner of the safety concerns.

“We regret the delay in notifying your district of the suspected sulfuric acid release from the Barnhardt facility,” Elizabeth Stinehart, acting deputy director of waste site cleanup for MassDEP, wrote back. “We are currently reviewing out notification protocols for down-stream receptors in suspected releases to waterways.”

While state and local fire marshalls oversee and regulate the storage of hazardous chemicals, MassDEP is responsible for the cleanup of hazardous waste.

“Massachusetts DEP and the Environmental Protection Agency are handling any enforcement and corrective measures,” Colrain fire chief Nicholas Anzuoni said in an email. “The fire department assisted the Massachusetts DEP during the initial response and had minimal involvement after that point.”

While the Barnhardt company has done some site remediation, the company has been issued no fines by MassDEP.

A Leaky History

“I wanted to make damn sure it was reported to the right people and handled like it should be,” said Rode, who studies environmental science at UMass-Amherst. “In a lot of these cases companies aren’t held responsible nearly as much as they should be.”

After the acid spill Donlon, the CRC river steward, wrote to MassDEP, suggesting the agency look into Barnhardt’s history of noncompliance with environmental regulations and issue a penalty equivalent to the damage done by the spill.

“Sometimes DEP’s fines seem minimal relative to what we see as the damage,” Donlon said. “This one seemed to be severe.”

The Colrain factory, located about three miles upstream from Sunburn Beach, has a past dense with effluent violations.

“This is the second time that sulfuric acid has reached the North River from this facility,” Donlon wrote, referencing an 1999 incident at the cotton bleachery, then known as Fiberweb. The factory was acquired in 2007 by the North Carolina-based Barnhardt Manufacturing Company, owned by the self-described “First Family of American Cotton.”

Barnhardt was issued notices of noncompliance by MassDEP in 2013, and twice in 2014. In September 2016, the company was fined $5,175 for noncompliance with environmental regulations.

According to EPA data, the facility exceeded safe discharge limits for sulfide last year by 271% between April and May, and has failed to consistently report effluent data on a quarterly basis.

“It seems time to require that Barnhardt move the sulfuric acid to indoor storage such that there is no route to the North River should a spill happen again in the future,” Donlon wrote.

MassDEP has not responded to emailed questions sent by the Reporter last September. This week, spokesperson Catherine Skiba confirmed that her department is pursuing enforcement action with the state attorney general. “At this time, while there is an ongoing investigation, we are unable to respond to the additional questions you have posed in your most recent e-mail,” she wrote.

MassWildlife did not return repeated requests for comment for this story. Last fall, first graders from Colrain Central School raised money to purchase supplies needed to hatch and raise trout to restock the river.


Sarah Robertson is a freelance journalist. Illustration by Lydia Berry.

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