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Chemical Plant Causes Burns in Alabama

Updated: Oct 9, 2018

This is gross and looks very painful so don't let this happen in your community

Can you imagine receiving second or even third degree burns on your hands when you used the water from your tap to wash them? Or worse, you get into your shower and get burn blisters all over your body after the touching the water for less than a few seconds! Well that happened in a community in Alabama back in 1986 due to the lack of a backflow preventer.

The Incident

On Wednesday, October 8, 1986, an 8” diameter water main of the Bessemer Water Service broke in Lacey’s Chapel, Alabama. While repairing the water main, one Bessemer Water Service Worker suffered leg burns from an unidentified chemical and required medical treatment.

Wednesday night and early Thursday, the Bessemer Water Service received several complaints from the area of Lacey’s Chapel served by the broken water main. Some residents complained of burned throats or mouths after drinking the water. Tiny red blisters covered one resident’s body after he got out of the shower on Thursday morning. He and several other residents received medical treatment at the emergency room of the local hospital. The Bessemer Water Service shut down water service to the area at 7:00am on Thursday and initiated an investigation. Sodium Hydroxide, a caustic chemical, had backflowed into the public water system from a nearby chemical plant.

The chemical plant distributed chemicals such as sodium hydroxide. Sodium hydroxide was brought to the plant as a liquid in bulk tanker trucks and was transferred to a holding tank and then pumped into 55-gallon drums. When the water main broke on Wednesday, a truck driver was adding water to a tanker truck that had carried sodium hydroxide. On this occasion, the driver was filling the tanker from a connection at the bottom of the tanker. Consequently, the sodium hydroxide in the tanker was back siphoned into the public water system when the water main broke.

About 60 homes in the area of the broken water main received contaminated water. Measurements of pH were as high as 13 in some homes. The Bessemer Water service flushed water mains, and health officials made sure that all plumbing was flushed.

There was no backflow preventer at the water service connection to the chemical plant. The Bessemer Water Service did not have a cross-connection control program although State regulations required public water systems to have such a program.


Backflow prevention is crucial to the safety of our potable (drinking) water. Sometimes we forget how much water we use in our daily activities and how it can affect our well-being. Simple things like washing our hands, using the bathroom, taking a shower or a bath, or getting a quick drink out of the tap, are all things we tend to take for granted. We water our grass, fill our pools, or set up sprinklers for our kids to play. Water is a part of almost everything we do in our lives. Unfortunately, most people have no idea what goes into the process of capturing, treating, and delivering water to our homes. We simply go to the sink, turn on the faucet and enjoy that water that pours out regardless of what we are using for.

Water Utilities throughout this country are tasked with the huge responsibilities of acquiring water, treating it properly, and then delivering it to our homes and businesses in our communities. This is no small task what so ever, but a majority people take it for granted because they see water fall from the sky and think “whats the big deal about water? Its free, there are rivers, lakes, and rain all around us. Why do I even have to pay for water?” But water is the only utility in our homes that we can’t live without! Sure, not having electricity would be difficult but people survived for centuries without that. Now, take my cable and highspeed internet away from me, and I am going to have some difficult, possibly life-threatening problems. But seriously, we must have water to live…and it has to be clean water!

Most of our Water Utilities across this country do an amazing job. It is also a thankless job because most of what they are dealing with is underground. We don’t see the half of what goes into the process of providing clean potable water to our homes. However, occasionally, like any other organization we may deal with, water utilities slip up and miss required maintenance activities, fail a water quality test, or make any other number of mistakes that can be made. In defense of our water utilities, they face many challenges due to the fact that most of them are underfunded, lack proper tools, and continue to lose staff in an effort to reduce costs.

We are often very demanding as citizens. We want everything to work perfectly but we usually don’t want to pay what is required to get the service we demand and expect. Water is a precious commodity and it is finite, there is only so much fresh water on this planet. It is important that we protect what we have and don’t waste it. More technology is being developed today in the water industry to help Water Utilities manage many aspects of their systems more efficiently. Paper and pen reports for the management of backflow testing is antiquated, inefficient, and sometimes ineffective. VEPO CrossConnex Software is a great solution to help your Water Utility manage their backflow program. Or feel free to contact us to get a free demo of our software that can help your Water Utility manage a backflow program at no cost to your Town or City.

Yes, incidents like the one you just read about in Alabama are far and few between. But don’t let this happen in your community, or worse, to you. Make sure to check if your home or business needs a backflow preventer and be sure to maintain it per the requirements of your local ordinances. Also follow up with your Water Utility to ensure they have a backflow program in place and that they are confirming devices are being tested on a regular basis. Refer to other articles in our blog to help you determine whether you need a backflow device, what type, and how to maintain it.


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