Driver identified in I-10 truck incident that led to an acid spill

By Greg Hahne, Alisa Reznick
Published: Thursday, February 16, 2023 - 10:45pm
Updated: Friday, February 17, 2023 - 8:43am

Officials on the scene of a nitric acid spill
Arizona Department of Public Safety
Officials on the scene of a nitric acid spill on Interstate 10 near Tucson on Feb. 14, 2023.

The Department of Public Safety identified the driver in Tuesday’s truck incident that caused a nitric acid spill as Ricky Immel, 54, of Nevada.

Though the cause of the incident isn’t clear at this point, officials didn’t see evidence of alcohol, drugs, or high speed being involved.

Captain Benjamin Buller with DPS says the truck was carrying 40,124 pounds of the acid, all of which spilled. It has all been buried and will be handled in coordination with Arizona Department of Transportation at a later time. 

"There were 13 totes that were in this vehicle. And from our investigation it appears that the packaging and transport of this hazardous material was within the federal motor carrier guidelines," Buller said.

Buller added that they are looking into whether fatigue or a medical issue led to the incident, though the driver was within regulations for driving hours. 

He said weather conditions caused them to increase the distance of the shelter-in-place to 3 miles from the original 1 mile.

Still officials did not detect any gas more than 100 yards away from the incident, and do not believe there is a health risk to nearby residents. 

Tucson area health officials are laying out next steps for cleanup and possible treatment of the area.

Dr. Mazda Shirazi — medical director of the Arizona Poison and Drug Information Center — says the liquid acid was highly concentrated.

Shrirazi says in liquid form, the acid can irritate the skin, but the principal concern is how it reacts to metal.

"Liquid nitric acid, when it comes in contact with certain metals, such as stainless steel, can release a gas called nitrogen dioxide," Shrirazi said.

Shirazi says the liquid acid was contained in smaller containers that started leaking after the crash, and likely bled into the body of the truck and eroded the metal. The chemical reaction produced the reddish brown plume that is dangerous to inhale.

But so far, Shirazi's team has not detected any trace amount of the toxin in surrounding areas.

Shirazi says that gas can have harmful respiratory effects that set in about 12 to 24 hours later.

"It can go down in the airway and cause pulmonary edema and then respiratory difficulties, but you have to be in contact with it for a prolonged period of time and at high concentrations," said Shirazi.

Shirazi says individuals who spent more than 15 minutes within feet of the crash site were exposed and some people have been evaluated for possible exposure. But so far, no one has met that threshold.