A chemical leak and fire early Wednesday at the Lanxess facility on King Street Extension led to nearby residents taking shelter and part of the road and Interstate 26 being shut down, officials said. The plant has had a history of violations and safety hazards under multiple owners, worrying local homeowners.

Crews were unloading a container of phosphorous at Lanxess, a specialty chemicals company, shortly after midnight when the leak occurred, plant manager Jean-Francois Berthiaume said. They are still investigating how precisely the leak happened.

"Fortunately, no one was hurt," Berthiaume said. The plant was also the site of a chlorine leak in May, he said. Both chlorine and phosphorous are toxic to humans.

In October 2018, the Environmental Protection Agency found the facility in violation of the Clean Air Act for allegedly releasing hazardous air pollutants, according to a facility report on the EPA's website.

And in May, an operator didn't completely close a hand wheel after unloading a rail car, according to an OSHA report, allowing chlorine to leak into the air. Six employees evacuated to a control room which had been been improperly designated as a safe shelter-in-place location, and was eventually tainted by the leaked gas. All of them were taken to the hospital, and three needed treatment.

After months of inspections, OSHA cited the Lanxess for three serious violations, including a failure to update operating procedures, which was corrected during their inspection. The other violations — a lack of proper labels and dangerous shelter-in-place site — needed to be addressed by Nov. 19, OSHA warned the facility in a citation. If left unresolved, OSHA proposed three penalties totaling $3,000.

Charleston Fire Department was called to Lanxess at 2151 King Street Extension after an automatic fire alarm went off. It took hours to extinguish the fire, Chief Fire Marshal Michael Julazadeh said. By 7 a.m., the leak had been contained, according to Lanxess spokesmen, who said they were not aware of any environmental impact. 

Lanxess facility

Part of the Lanxess facility on King Street Extension where a chemical leak and fire early Wednesday, November 27, 2019, led to nearby residents taking shelter and part of Interstate 26 being shut down. Brad Nettles/Staff

Officials sent out a reverse 911 call to residents in the area at 1:50 a.m. to tell them to take shelter and secure their windows and doors. They closed nearby roadways, including I-26, which had been reopened by 4 a.m., Julazadeh said. A police car was still outside the facility later in the morning.

This isn't the first time area residents have been endangered by the site, which was previously owned by the Albright & Wilson chemical company. In 1991, an explosion at the plant killed nine people and injured dozens, sending chemicals into surrounding neighborhoods. The Lanxess facility sits in a highly industrialized part of the Neck Area, but over the railroad tracks and off Meeting Street there are several residential communities.

Bobby Melvin lives in a house near the facility, and he vividly remembers the 1991 explosion.

"It wrecked the area," he said. Melvin was surprised when he got the call early this morning about the chemical leak, and it reminded him of the explosion.

"You never know if it'll happen again," he said.

Some residents in the area said they didn't receive the call but heard loud sirens. Gaston Bruen, who lives in a nearby home, said the incident makes him nervous to have a chemical plant so close to where he lives. 

Lanxess purchased the 122-acre Charleston site from Solvay in early 2018. They also operate a facility in Goose Creek.

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Reach Fleming Smith at 843-937-5591. Follow her on Twitter at @MFlemingSmith.

Fleming Smith covers breaking news for the Charleston area. A native Georgian, she previously covered breaking news and features for The Wall Street Journal and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.