Dangerous chemical spill in Beach Park may leave some permanently disabled

BEACH PARK, Ill. — Over a month after a chemical spill released a dangerous gas cloud in Beach Park, sending dozens of people to area hospitals, officials say some of those affected are dealing with disabilities that could become permanent.

A total of 37 people went to the hospital after anhydrous ammonia — a powerful fertilizer — leaked from a 2-ton tanker near 29th Street and Green Bay Road on April 25. First responders were among seven admitted in critical condition after they were exposed while responding to the scene.

Pamela Burnett says she drove into the plume, not knowing it was toxic.

“The next thing I know I couldn’t breathe, I was suffocating. My eyes were watering, I was just, I was panicking,” Burnett said.

The day it happened, residents who live within a mile of the scene were told to stay inside and keep their windows closed. Not everyone got the message, and those who stepped outside for fresh air quickly passed out.

Asked how serious injuries could be, Vista Medical Center Director Kenji Oyasu said: “Only time will tell.”

Several of the injured spent up to a week in intensive care dealing with chemical burns to their lungs, not knowing if they would fully recover. Many say they are still ill, and continue to schedule appointments with lung specialists and take their kids to the doctor. Some are reporting partial blindness, an inability to speak at all, lung problems and persistent coughs.

Even trees and bushes near the spill site have turned brown. People affected by the spill now want answers: If this is what the ammonia did to the trees, what did it do to their lungs?

Yellow caution tape still surrounds the scene. But since the day of the incident, residents say, they haven’t heard much from officials. The Lake County Health Department initially tested nearby water sources and cautioned people to drink bottled water just in case. The EPA hasn’t been back.

The CDC returned to the area to check on the health of residents last week. Asked by WGN about potential long-term effects of exposure to ammonia, the agency said it depends on the severity, length and location of exposure. A single, small to moderate exposure is not likely to cause long-term health effects, while severe exposure could cause chronic conditions like COPD in the lungs, or even glaucoma in the eyes.

As hospital bills pile up for some, others are wondering how they will pay for the property damage.

“It’s not only my own property, it’s all the neighbors in the area that have been destroyed as well,” Lyle Caldero said.

In many of these cases home owner's insurance doesn’t cover toxic gas damage or treatment. These people are waiting for the incident report, but that won’t be released until the NTSB finishes its investigation. Sources tell WGN they are considering taking legal action against the farmer who was transporting that ammonia.

The tractor hauling the toxic chemicals that day came from John Kevek Farms in Pleasant Prairie, WI. At Kevek Farms, tanks of anhydrous ammonia like the ones that leaked line the property. The ones involved in the spill in April were shipped to Washington, D.C. as the NTSB investigates.

The Illinois Fertilizer and Chemical Association says it appears the hose on the tanker was connected in this case, which can be dangerous, and under Illinois state law is not allowed while transporting anhydrous ammonia on public roads.

Illinois has about 28,000 anhydrous ammonia tanks in use. They are inspected by the Illinois Department of Agriculture annually. On average, there are fewer than 10 leaks a year, according to the Illinois Fertilizer and Chemical Association.

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