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Yellowish cloud leads to evacuation at Bellingham engine plant

Members of Whatcom County's hazardous materials team, the Specialized Emergency Response Program, wait for a two-man crew to return from inspecting a tank at the Yamato Engine Specialist site at on Friday, Aug. 29, 2014, at 2020 E. Bakerview Rd.
Members of Whatcom County's hazardous materials team, the Specialized Emergency Response Program, wait for a two-man crew to return from inspecting a tank at the Yamato Engine Specialist site at on Friday, Aug. 29, 2014, at 2020 E. Bakerview Rd. THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

BELLINGHAM - A mustard-colored chemical cloud inside an engine manufacturing plant in Belingham led to an evacuation of 140 employees and a large hazmat response Friday, Aug. 29.

No one was hurt, and firefighters said the cloud posed no threat to the general public.

A worker at Yamato Engine Specialists, at 2020 E. Bakerview Road, poured a product containing sulfuric acid into a 1,000-gallon drum that holds engine-cleaning fluid, said Bellingham Fire Department Assistant Chief Bill Hewett. Something - likely a cleaning product the company recently started using, already in the cleaning tank - reacted with the acid, emitting a cloud described as a dirty yellowish, greenish-brown color.

"Obviously," Hewett said, "we had a couple of chemicals that shouldn't have been mixing together."

Right away the worker pressed the fire alarm. All 140 employees on site filed out of the building unharmed at 11:51 a.m., following a rehearsed evacuation plan.

"All of those processes worked perfectly today," Hewett said. "That's why we're in such a good spot right now."

A hazardous materials team of 30 people - county firefighters and volunteers from private businesses - responded to the warehouse, near Bakerview and Irongate roads. Several of them suited up and, around 2:30 p.m., entered the building. By then the gas had dissipated so much, it was hard to find a good sample of the chemicals. So firefighters don't know what exactly was in the cloud, or how dangerous the fumes could have been.

"But as a general practice, it's usually not a good idea to breathe in yellow clouds," Hewett said.

After the hazmat team swept through the warehouse in search of hidden pockets of gas - and finding none - the building reopened around 3 p.m. for contractors to clean out the tank. Many of the regular workers went home for the day.

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