Randa Hovater 01.jpg

A Sheffield firefighter trying to alert Willie and Randa Hovater of a chlorine leak in the area is captured on the couple's doorbell camera early Sunday morning. [COURTESY PHOTO]

SHEFFIELD — Sheffield Utilities officials will meet with members of the Colbert County Emergency Management Agency this week to review procedures used during a chlorine gas leak Sunday that led to the evacuation of some members of the Village 1 neighborhood.

Sheffield Utilities General Manager Steve Hargrove said a regulator on a 150-pound tank of chlorine at the wastewater treatment plant failed, allowing chlorine gas to escape. An alarm alerted a plant worker at about 1 a.m., Hargrove said.

Colbert 911 was called and EMA Director Michael Smith said they decided to evacuate low-lying areas near the facility on Furnace Road off West 20th Avenue because they did not know how much chlorine had escaped.

He said there was also a 2,000 pound tank in service at the plant.

Chlorine gas is heavier than air and tends to hang low to the ground. 

Hargrove said only about 70 pounds of chlorine was released into the air.

"We were doing the worst-case scenario until we knew what we were dealing with," Smith said.

Police Chief Ricky Terry said off-duty police officers were called, and police went into the neighborhood running lights and sirens, and using their public address system to advise residents to evacuate.

Village resident Randa Hovater said she was awakened by the commotion and didn't know what was going on at first. Once she learned it was a chlorine leak, she and her husband, Willie Hovater, and their two Dachshunds took refuge in his law office in downtown Tuscumbia.

Hovater said their Ring doorbell camera alerted her to a firefighter at their door telling them to evacuate, but they had already left. 

"I was more scared when I first woke up," Hovater said. "This is a relatively safe neighborhood."

Hovater said she was more worried about elderly neighbors, so she contacted those she knew were not able bodied or didn't drive to make sure they were OK.

Some residents reportedly sheltered in place.

Once the Colbert County HazMat team shut down the malfunctioning regulator, the gas was allowed to naturally dissipate. About daybreak, residents were allowed to return to their homes, Smith said.

Hargrove said the regulators on the chlorine tanks are inspected annually by an outside company. The regulator that failed was scheduled to be inspected next month.

"It wasn't anything that had been neglected," Smith said. "It was something that was serviced regularly."

Village residents Greg and Malinda Harrison took their two children and two dogs to a friend's office building downtown. 

"I knew it was pretty serious," Greg Harrison said. "It took a little while for it to register because it was 2:30 in the morning. I'm glad they did it."

He disagreed with residents who said officials overreacted, even though he never smelled any chlorine gas.

A temporary shelter was set up at Sheffield Recreation Center for those with no other place to go.

Hargrove said once EMA officials arrived, they took over the scene and made the decision to evacuate residents.

He said officials will meet with Colbert EMA to review procedures used in the emergency. 

Sheffield Public Safety Director Dewey King said police set up barricades to keep people from entering the area.

King said it was the first chemical spill that required an evacuation that he can remember, outside of an emergency related to a train derailment.

Officials said they believe police, fire, EMA and Sheffield Utilities followed the correct procedures.

"I believe myself and Chief King are going to have a meeting and discuss things, and some equipment we might need in the future," Terry said.

Terry said he received no reports of injuries to the public, police, firefighter or EMA personnel during the incident.


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(1) comment

Ernie Perez

Great Job!! Congratulations to all the agencies involved. They had a plan and it was executed perfectly. I know the citizens of Sheffield are very Thankful and Proud of all those agencies. Thanks!!!

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