Chlorine gas plant risk is worrisome
- Published: June 19, 2014
When two freight trains collided on the track near Graniteville, S.C. in 2005, one of the derailed train cars filled with 90 tons of chlorine gas ruptured. A yellowish-green noxious cloud containing 120,000 pounds of the poisonous gas spread quickly along the ground, causing those nearby to cough, choke and wheeze while burning their eyes, skin and throats. Nine people died, 1,400 were exposed and more than 5,000 evacuated for weeks while the area was decontaminated.
Seven miles west of Yellow Springs, an industrial plant can store six times the amount of chlorine gas released during the South Carolina accident. Miami Products & Chemical Co. in Fairborn is permitted to keep four 90-ton train cars containing 720,000 pounds of chlorine gas on a private rail spur on site. If one of its train tanks ruptured, releasing 180,000 pounds, almost 600,000 people in a 14-mile radius around the plant would be affected, according to a 2009 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency document filed by the company.
Local environmentalists worried that an accident at the Fairborn plant could cause widespread public harm in Yellow Springs and neighboring communities have begun to pressure the company to convert its manufacturing process so chlorine gas would not be needed. They say lax government oversight over these hazardous materials and the availability of safer alternatives necessitates the change.
“A lot of these facilities are going uninspected — they fall through the cracks,” said Vickie Hennessy, president of Green Environmental Coalition in a recent interview. “There are better ways of doing it — you don’t need chlorine gas.”
In a letter last fall, the coalition appealed to Miami Products & Chemical to switch to a safer but still dangerous high-strength liquid bleach, rather than chlorine gas, as the feedstock for its process, citing a recent move by Clorox, a large producer of bleach, to convert its seven U.S. plants to the safer process. Miami Products & Chemical has said while it has explored the technology switch, it is currently not planning a complete overhaul of its process, according to Hennessy in a letter she said she received from the company.
This week, company owner Roger Kayser refused to comment on operations at his plant but summarized his response to the Green Environmental Coalition:
“I don’t answer to them and they don’t understand what we do here,” Kayser said. “We run a clean, safe operation and they need to know that fact. They don’t want to listen to me.”
However, the Ohio EPA, the Fairborn Fire Department, and local emergency management agencies are aware of the chlorine gas stored at the facility and have plans in place to respond to an accident. The Greene County Emergency Management Agency, or EMA, has detailed plans for alerting nearby residents and evacuating surrounding neighborhoods in the case of an accident at the plant, according to its director Rosanne Anders. In addition, the Fairborn Fire Department conducts annual inspections of safety measures at the plant and keeps a chlorine gas detector on hand at the station, according to Battalion Chief Adam Howard.
“We are out there at least once per year and they keep us up to speed with any changes they have,” Howard said. Though the fire inspections are voluntary, “we have a cordial relationship with the company,” he added.
A ‘particular’ hazard
Miami Products & Chemical has manufactured liquid bleach for residential pool treatment under the brand name Sanygen, along with other products, at its Schwermann Drive plant since 2001. Last year, the company caught the eye of Yellow Springs public interest lawyer Ellis Jacobs when he went in search of hazardous facilities after an explosion at a West Texas fertilizer manufacturing plant killed 15 people. While there are some 60 companies and agencies in a nine-county area in southwest Ohio that store hazardous materials like chlorine and anhydrous ammonia (used as fertilizer), Jacobs was particularly troubled by what he found at Miami Products & Chemical.
“This was one facility that stood out in particular because the quantity of chlorine gas on site was far greater than any other facility in the Miami Valley,” Jacobs said. “I thought ‘wow,’ this needs to be talked about.”
Meanwhile, a Univar chemical facility in Butler County is permitted to store a similar amount of chlorine gas and a few municipal water treatment plants in the area store far smaller quantities of chlorine gas on site, according to a U.S. EPA database. The Village of Yellow Springs stores eight to 10 150-lb. cylinders of chlorine gas at its water treatment plant, according to Yellow Springs plant operator Brad Ault. That amounts to about 1/500th the amount at the Fairborn facility.
An additional danger at the Fairborn Company, according to Jacobs, is the plant’s proximity to residential areas, several Fairborn City schools and Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, which has 26,000 military and civilian employees and contractors on site. While Jacobs believes the odds of an accident causing the release of large amount of chlorine gas are small, the potential impact of the deadly gas on a large population is worrisome.
“The chance that there would be a release of this chlorine gas is very slim but because the consequences would be so catastrophic, it does force us to pay attention,” Jacobs said. Jacobs went on to enlist the help of the Green Environmental Coalition, who is now also working with Greenpeace.
Dangers of chlorine gas
Chlorine is one of the most commonly manufactured and widely used chemicals in the U.S., and is only second to carbon monoxide in its share of chemical accidents that cause injuries in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Exposure to chlorine gas can cause both short- and long-term health effects. Low levels cause eye, nose and throat irritation and high levels lead to shortness of breath, coughing, lung damage and death, a CDC website explains.
According to Greenpeace toxics campaign legislative director Rick Hind, the impacts of chlorine gas are “ugly,” and at high concentrations of more than 300 parts per million, a few breaths can kill. Chlorine gas was used as a chemical weapon during World War I.
“Once chlorine enters any moist areas of your body — your eyes, nose throat — it turns to hydrochloric acid and literally liquefies your insides,” Hind said. “It is a horrible agonizing death or a horrible wound that is slow to heal.”
Hind added that since the gas is liquefied under pressure in the 90-ton rail cars and turns to gas when exposed to air, far more gas is contained within them than it appears. Once released, the gas cloud hugs the ground since it is denser than air, and those nearby are unable to outrun it, Hinds said.
“The people closest to the facility are in the kill zone,” he said. “The average wind speed is 10 to 12 miles per hour so escape at that point is not possible — you can’t run from it.”
Regulating chemical facilities
Greenpeace has for years been pushing for the U.S. EPA to enforce an unused provision of the “Bhopal” amendment in the 1990 Clean Air Act that would require companies such as Miami Products & Chemical to change their manufacturing processes so they didn’t rely on hazardous materials. The amendment was inspired by the 1984 toxic poisoning at a pesticide plant in Bhopal, India that killed thousands and is considered the worst industrial accident.
U.S. EPA officials are currently drafting new regulations following an executive order from President Obama last August after the West Texas fertilizer plant explosion that the agency look into ways to improve the safety and security of chemical facilities. A public comment period on proposed regulatory options, including a requirement that companies convert plants using chlorine gas and other hazards, will open soon, according to Hinds. Currently, companies must comply with U.S. Department of Homeland Security rules focused on “guards, gates, and gadgets” to prevent terrorist acts, regulations that Hind believes are toothless. Instead, preventing any chance of an accident or attack by removing the danger completely should be the goal, he said.
“The day after a disaster like Bhopal [India] happens, 99 percent of the public will say if we had a safer alternative, why didn’t we require it back then?” Hind said.
Emergency plans at the ready
In compliance with the 1986 Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act, Miami Products & Chemical is required to submit a Risk Management Plan, or RMP, to the U.S. EPA every five years. Copies of the report are also sent to the Ohio EPA, which administers the program, and the area’s Local Emergency Planning Committee, a joint committee for Montgomery and Greene counties. In the event of an accident, first responders would be the Fairborn Fire Department and the Dayton Regional Hazmat Team, according to Anders, the Greene County EMA director. An automated HyperCall to area land lines would alert locals to the imminent danger, she added.
According to Dina Pierce, a spokesperson for the Ohio EPA, the purpose of the Right-to-Know law is so local emergency responders know “what they’re walking into.” RMPs describe safety procedures, including the posting of lists of agencies to call in case of an accident, and confirm that employees are properly trained to prevent and manage accidents, Pierce said. While Ohio EPA officials conduct periodic inspections of RMP facilities like Miami Product & Chemical about once every five years, they are not inspecting the rail cars or manufacturing processes, but the safety protocols at the plant.
“We are making sure they have emergency procedures in place,” Pierce said of Ohio EPA’s role. “We’re not crawling around the rail cars looking for leaks.”
In Miami Product & Chemical’s most recent RMP in 2009, the company reported that in the worst case scenario of a catastrophic failure of a tank car, transfer hose, piping or valves, 180,000 pounds of chlorine gas could be released in 10 minutes, which the EPA calculated as potentially impacting those in a 14-mile radius downwind of the plant. The population in that area is 581,240 people and includes the communities of Fairborn, Beavercreek, Dayton, Springfield, Xenia, Yellow Springs, Vandalia and Kettering.
The company also reported to the EPA that its facility uses “state-of-the-art technology” to safely transfer chlorine gas to its reactor with a system of automated locks, that they have had extensive discussions with the Fairborn Fire Department about an emergency response plan in the case of a chlorine accident and that its operators follow the Chlorine Institute’s safety guidelines.
Having operated bleach facilities in Fairborn and Dayton for more than 20 years “without a significant chlorine release,” the company was confident it would continue to have a sterling safety record, they wrote in the report.
Keeping the pressure on
Despite the likely safety measures that Miami Products & Chemical has in place, Jacobs believes that such technologies are “inherently fallible” and pressuring the company to cease its use of chlorine gas is the best option.
“While we want them to do the best practices, they just need to stop storing this incredibly hazardous material in the middle of a populated area,” Jacobs said.
However, despite repeated requests, the company has not yet agreed to sit down with Green Environmental Coalition representatives, according to Hennessy. She said the company did respond in writing to the coalition’s initial letter by saying the company considered making the change to its manufacturing process, but were unable to commit to the change at the present time because of other demands and that company officials would be open to a meeting but were too busy at the time.
“The preference was to sit down and address it but they haven’t been responsive,” Jacobs said.
Jacobs and the G.E.C. are currently exploring other avenues to engage the company. Jacobs, for one, is not giving up.
“These are exactly the things that companies have a hard time addressing without public pressure — until the day arises when there is a confluence of events that causes a catastrophe,” Jacobs said.
For more information on nearby hazardous facilities visit http://www.preventchemicaldisasters.org.