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Evacuation: Hazardous gold-stripping acid removed from Easthampton apartment of ex-tenant

  • A group of people gather at the corner of Adams and Maple Streets in Easthampton Monday as a hazardous materials team works at 3 Maple Street. Maple street was closed to traffic between Adams and Chapel Streets as a hazardous materials team recovered chemicals from a vacant apartment.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    A group of people gather at the corner of Adams and Maple Streets in Easthampton Monday as a hazardous materials team works at 3 Maple Street. Maple street was closed to traffic between Adams and Chapel Streets as a hazardous materials team recovered chemicals from a vacant apartment.
    JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Jim McInerney, center, a Chicopee firefighter on the hazardous materials team, talks to a group of firefighters Monday after recovering chemicals from an apartment at 3 Maple Street in Easthampton.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    Jim McInerney, center, a Chicopee firefighter on the hazardous materials team, talks to a group of firefighters Monday after recovering chemicals from an apartment at 3 Maple Street in Easthampton.
    JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Easthampton Fire Chief David Mottor, left, and Amherst Fire Chief Walter "Tim" Nelson monitor the scene at 3 Maple Street in Easthampton where hazardous chemicals were found Monday.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    Easthampton Fire Chief David Mottor, left, and Amherst Fire Chief Walter "Tim" Nelson monitor the scene at 3 Maple Street in Easthampton where hazardous chemicals were found Monday.
    JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

  • South Hadley District 2 Fire Chief David Keefe, right, assists Darrin Padilla, a Springfield firefighter who is a hazardous materials technician, at 3 Maple Street in Easthampton Monday, where chemicals were found in a vacant apartment.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    South Hadley District 2 Fire Chief David Keefe, right, assists Darrin Padilla, a Springfield firefighter who is a hazardous materials technician, at 3 Maple Street in Easthampton Monday, where chemicals were found in a vacant apartment.
    JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Jon Davine, a Northampton firefighter on the hazardous materials team, left, hands a sample of a chemical to South Hadley District 2 Fire Chief David Keefe Monday at 3 Maple Street in Easthampton. Other firefighters stand ready with water.     <br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    Jon Davine, a Northampton firefighter on the hazardous materials team, left, hands a sample of a chemical to South Hadley District 2 Fire Chief David Keefe Monday at 3 Maple Street in Easthampton. Other firefighters stand ready with water.
    JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Jon Davine, top left, a Northampton firefighter on the hazardous materials  team, hands a sample to South Hadley District 2 Fire Chief David Keefe beside Jim McInerney, a Chicopee firefighter on the hazardous materials team, Monday at 3 Maple Street in Easthampton. Hazardous chemicals were found in the vacant apartment.<br/><br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    Jon Davine, top left, a Northampton firefighter on the hazardous materials team, hands a sample to South Hadley District 2 Fire Chief David Keefe beside Jim McInerney, a Chicopee firefighter on the hazardous materials team, Monday at 3 Maple Street in Easthampton. Hazardous chemicals were found in the vacant apartment.

    JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

  • A group of people gather at the corner of Adams and Maple Streets in Easthampton Monday as a hazardous materials team works at 3 Maple Street. Maple street was closed to traffic between Adams and Chapel Streets as a hazardous materials team recovered chemicals from a vacant apartment.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Jim McInerney, center, a Chicopee firefighter on the hazardous materials team, talks to a group of firefighters Monday after recovering chemicals from an apartment at 3 Maple Street in Easthampton.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Easthampton Fire Chief David Mottor, left, and Amherst Fire Chief Walter "Tim" Nelson monitor the scene at 3 Maple Street in Easthampton where hazardous chemicals were found Monday.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • South Hadley District 2 Fire Chief David Keefe, right, assists Darrin Padilla, a Springfield firefighter who is a hazardous materials technician, at 3 Maple Street in Easthampton Monday, where chemicals were found in a vacant apartment.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Jon Davine, a Northampton firefighter on the hazardous materials team, left, hands a sample of a chemical to South Hadley District 2 Fire Chief David Keefe Monday at 3 Maple Street in Easthampton. Other firefighters stand ready with water.     <br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Jon Davine, top left, a Northampton firefighter on the hazardous materials  team, hands a sample to South Hadley District 2 Fire Chief David Keefe beside Jim McInerney, a Chicopee firefighter on the hazardous materials team, Monday at 3 Maple Street in Easthampton. Hazardous chemicals were found in the vacant apartment.<br/><br/>JERREY ROBERTS

After one and a half hours, a state hazardous materials team determined that the liquid was a corrosive acid used to extract gold from computer chips, a process called aqua regia, said Easthampton Police Detective Robert Alberti.

Alberti said the acid is dangerous if it contacts the skin, but tenants were allowed to return to their apartments after officials removed the chemical from 3 Maple St.

He said he didn’t think charges would be filed against the former tenant, who was recently evicted, but added that “you’re not supposed to be able to get your hands on” the acid.

According to Princeton University’s online laboratory safety manual, the aqua regia process typically involves mixing a combination of one part nitric acid and three parts hydrochloric acid to create nitrohydrochloric acid. The mixture dissolves so-called noble metals such as gold and platinum. It also causes skin burns and can explode if stored improperly.

Police and firefighters were called to the apartment because the movers found the acid in the basement and thought it seemed suspicious. Alberti said the building was evacuated shortly after 4:30 p.m. “as a safety precaution” in case the material was explosive. Maple Street was blocked off by caution tape from the intersection with Adams and Cottage streets to the municipal parking lot and the collection of emergency vehicles drew a small crowd of onlookers.

Two members of a hazardous materials team donned protective gear and breathing apparatuses and entered the apartment before 5 p.m. They retrieved vials of samples several times and brought them out of the apartment to the nearby municipal parking lot, where the state Department of Fire Services had set up a testing laboratory.

Also on scene were the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the state fire marshal’s office, the State Police bomb unit, the Drug Enforcement Agency and the state Department of Environmental Protection.

No one was injured during the incident and no damage was caused to the building, according to the Fire Department.

Rickie Miller, who lives at 5 Maple St., said the tenants who lived in the neighboring apartment vacated the apartment and a sheriff was present when movers were removing their possessions Monday. She said the movers told her they found “chemicals and plants” in the basement and when the hazardous materials team arrived, she decided to leave.

Miller said she was relieved that she would be able to go home and that her apartment wasn’t in danger of being damaged.

“He told my boyfriend once that he was making gold,” she said of her former neighbor, but they never believed him.

UMass chemistry professor Richard Vachet said that the aqua regia process is “not that difficult” but the acid can be dangerous.

“Aqua regia is highly corrosive, and if someone gets it on their skin, it would lead to a pretty bad chemical burn,” he said in an email to the Gazette. “Perhaps as big a problem is that when it is made, it starts to decompose to produce fumes of nitric oxide gas, chlorine gas, and nitrogen dioxide gas. All of these gases are poisonous at high concentrations.”

He said the biggest safety concern with aqua regia is if it is stored in a sealed container. “As it decomposes and gives off the aforementioned gases, the pressure from these gases builds up,” he said. “If a sealed container is used to store it, an explosion could eventually occur. Obviously a big enough explosion could spread the corrosive material.”

Police did not say whether the liquid was found in a sealed container.

Staff Writer Scott Merzbach contributed to this story.

Rebecca Everett can be reached at reverett@gazettenet.com.

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