South Carolina regulators issued an emergency permit after chemical company Solvay discovered small amounts of crystallized chemicals that could explode if disturbed, in the company's Charleston processing plant along the Ashley River.
Picric acid and 1,3,5-Trinitrobenzene found in bottles prompted the response, according to the state Department of Health and Environmental Control.
"Due to the presence of these unstable chemicals, the waste cannot be safely transported to a permitted treatment facility," DHEC said.
The waste will be removed from a building and "neutralized" before disposal at an approved location. The process should take no more than a few hours, said DHEC spokesman Jim Beasley.
"The emergency permit enables the facility to properly handle the waste so that public health and the environment are not at risk," Beasley said.
The chemicals were used in testing quality control standards on laboratory analytical equipment and are no longer needed, said Charles Tuskan, plant manager.
"This project poses no public risk," Tuskan said.
Solvay has retained a third-party contractor specializing in stabilization and packaging of waste laboratory chemicals through physical or chemical neutralization, he said in an emailed statement.
Solvay's Charleston plant on King Street Extension produces ingredients for flame retardants, water treatment, pharmaceuticals and agricultural applications.
The company requested the emergency permit in a March 18 letter, and the permit was issued on April 7. The chemicals are expected to be removed from Solvay's building by May 1. The first public notice about the situation was issued Thursday.
In 2006, a bomb squad detonated three bottles of picric acid in Hanahan. A man told authorities he found one of the bottles while cleaning out the officer's quarters at Fort Moultrie. He thought it was an antiseptic but later called police when he became concerned about the contents of the bottle. Officials went to the fort and found two more bottles of picric acid, which historians said could have been used as an explosive from about the time of the Civil War to the 1920s.
At The Citadel, chemical safety officer and laboratory safety manager Jim Wilkerson said the chemicals covered by the emergency permit are powerful, shock-sensitive explosives, and he would want to know what quantity is involved.
"It was an explosive used militarily from about 1875 or 1880 up until World War I," Wilkerson said. "TNT, for example, is a less explosive chemical."
The cleanup involves 10 grams of crystallized picric acid and 20 grams of crystallized 1,3,5-Trinitrobenzene - enough to fill about nine teaspoons.
Wilkerson said that's enough to be dangerous, but not enough that it would worry him if he lived near the Solvay plant. Charleston's Rosemont neighborhood is immediately south of the facility, and a nursing home and an apartment building are on the next property north of the plant.
"If somebody really handled it poorly, they would probably trash the room and kill themselves, but that would be about it," Wilkerson said. "It can be handled successfully by people who know what they are doing."
Herbert Fraser-Rahim keeps a close eye on environmental concerns that impact neighborhoods in the south end of North Charleston as environmental chairman for the Charleston Community Research to Action Board. He said the emergency permit for the Solvay facility does not seem unusual.
"Situations come up, and the issue is whether they are dealing with it in an appropriate manner," Fraser-Rahim said. "Usually when DHEC does that, they are satisfied with the process Solvay is using."
"I don't see that being a big issue for us at all," he said.
David Race owns the Dolphin Cove Marina next to Solvay.
He said the situation is not a worry.
"I think they are pretty darn conscientious," he said of the plant operators.
Solvay, a Belgian chemical company, acquired the Charleston production facility when it purchased Rhodia, a French chemical company, in a $4.8 billion deal three years ago.