ECU chemistry professor explains impact of chemical combination in Jacksonville

GREENVILLE, N.C. (WITN) – Today, we’re learning more about the two chemicals that were mixed by accident at Jacksonville’s Water Treatment Plant.

We’ve been following this story since it happened Tuesday, forcing people to evacuate an apartment complex nearby.

Yesterday, Jacksonville Public Safety officials said zinc orthophosphate was accidentally put into a storage tank containing sulfuric acid at the city’s water treatment plant.

Today WITN talked to the chair of ECU’s Chemistry Department, Dr. Andrew Morehead.

He explained that sulfuric acid is very corrosive and is used to adjust water’s pH.

Zinc orthophosphate is used to form a coating on pipes, which helps prevent corrosion and preventing exposure to lead for people who have lead pipes.

Morehead added that there’s potential for a serious reaction when those two chemicals are combined.

“The issue here of the mixing of those two is that it’s what we call exothermic in chemistry terms,” Morehead explained. “It generates heat, and so the probably initial concern that lead to them saying we should get away from this is that if that took off and there was a lot of heat generated, then you’re facing the odds of, I don’t want to say explosion, but you could definitely get some kind of spill, some kind of boiling that could lead to something getting injected into the air.”

Now, Morehead says the concern will be disposing of those chemicals safely because they are now considered hazardous waste.

“Sulfuric acid is really quite corrosive, and so they’ll probably have to neutralize that in some way to dispose of it, so I think it’s really going to be more of the cleanup issue than any kind of ongoing threat to the public here,” said Morehead.

Morehead added that it’s likely the disposal will be expensive. Jacksonville officials say no chemicals were released or spilled.