A hazardous materials crew neutralized an accidental release of chlorine gas at the Rock County Courthouse on Friday morning, and a county worker exposed to the gas was sent to a hospital.
Officials initially said no one was injured in the release of gas that led to the evacuation and closure of the courthouse.
But authorities later said a maintenance worker accidentally mixed the wrong chemicals used in the building’s cooling system, and that worker later was “experiencing symptoms” of exposure to chlorine gas released in the accident.
Acting County Administrator Randy Terronez said the worker initially showed no symptoms of injury but an hour or so after the accident started showing signs of chemical exposure.
Terronez said the worker was treated at a hospital and released. Terronez declined to name the worker, but he said the man returned to the courthouse after he was treated and seemed OK.
Some courthouse employees said Friday they could smell and taste chlorine and that their eyes stung as they were evacuating the courthouse at about 9 a.m.
Courthouse bailiffs said security officers manning the courthouse’s lower inmate holding cells were told to put on emergency gas masks with air tanks before an evacuation was ordered.
In a news release, the Rock County Sheriff’s Office reported a sheriff’s deputy was treated on the scene for chemical exposure in the incident. Sheriff’s officials said the accident happened about 8:30 a.m., and Terronez said a courthouse facilities management official activated a fire alarm “within minutes” of the accident.
Janesville police were called out at 8:53 a.m., and Terronez said the courthouse used the building’s intercom to tell people to evacuate. The evacuation came about the same time firefighters and a hazmat crew were arriving, he said.
About 100 courthouse employees were evacuated. It’s not clear how many people were appearing in court for scheduled hearings at the time.
At about noon, officials had reopened Court Street, a Gazette reporter on the scene said, but for a few hours earlier, access to the courthouse was closed, including from Atwood Avenue and Main Street. Residents were advised to avoid the area.
Janesville Fire Chief Ernie Rhodes told The Gazette that workers at the courthouse accidentally mixed sulfuric acid and sodium hypochlorite in a 55-gallon drum, creating chlorine gas, which can be dangerous.
He said based on preliminary information, it appeared county workers were handling a set of new chemicals that hadn’t been used at the courthouse before, and the new mixture was “not compatible.”
John Furseth, acting Rock County facility superintendent, said the chemicals involved are used for treating the water that circulates through the air-conditioning cooling tower at the courthouse. He said he was not sure how much chemical was involved.
The accident occurred in a utility room on a lower level in the parking deck area on the building’s west side, Terronez said.
By about 11:15 a.m. Friday, Rhodes told reporters crews had mitigated and neutralized the gas to the point that it was no longer a potential emergency. He said two hazmat workers also checked for any damage to the plastic tank where the chemicals were mixed.
He said as of late Friday morning, the building was free of chlorine gas.
Rhodes said hazmat crews hadn’t removed any equipment or materials from the area where the accident occurred.
The courthouse was closed for the day based on advice from the fire department and sheriff’s office, Terronez said.
Local crews Friday afternoon turned over the response to a cleanup contractor that was provided by the chemical provider. Terronez said he didn’t have details on the contractor’s work, but the courthouse was “cleared” for employees who needed to retrieve their keys or other belongings shortly after 3 p.m.
Terronez said the county followed the same procedures it uses for “snow days” at the courthouse. For snow emergencies that close the courthouse, the county’s chief judge and county board chairman initiate a set of calls on a phone tree to all department heads.
The closure only affected county workers at the courthouse, he said.
Rhodes told reporters the accident presented a minor hazard to people in the courthouse.
The bigger impact was on business at the courthouse, which was shut down for the day.
A Gazette reporter observed a woman in a red T-shirt approach a cordoned-off area around the courthouse at about 9:45 a.m. When the woman learned the courthouse was being closed, she asked what she was supposed to do about her 10 a.m. court date.
Terronez said her hearing and other hearings slated for Friday will be rescheduled.
“All righty then,” the woman responded.
Jury trials scheduled for Monday will be rescheduled because court officials weren’t sure Friday if they would be able to update the automated system prospective jurors call every night to check if they need to report for jury duty.
Judge Barbara McCrory said she had three jury trials slated for Monday that will have to be moved. She knew lawyers involved in at least one of the trials needed to access court papers Friday, and they would be unable to access them.
McCrory and Judge Dan Dillon said anyone wondering about rescheduling of criminal or civil hearings could contact the clerk of courts office Monday, when the courthouse will reopen.
McCrory said she was in the courthouse Friday morning when staff activated alarms and announced the evacuation.
She said by the time the evacuation announcement came, the gas fumes were noticeable, even on the upper floors.
“If you were breathing it in, you could feel it in your chest. And my eyes were a little bit sore,” she said.