Despite government misgivings, chemical disasters reach public : LUSENET : TimeBomb 2000 (Y2000) : One Thread







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Regional Despite government misgivings, chemical disaster scenarios reach public

WASHINGTON (AP) - At Tropicana's Northeast operations plant in Jersey City, it would be the "complete rupture of the controlled pressure receiver which contains as much as 23,640 lbs. of anhydrous ammonia," a farm fertilizer that can cause blindness, lung disease, burns, and death.

At the Solutia Delaware River Plant in Bridgeport, it would be "the catastrophic failure of a 90-ton chlorine railroad tank car" and subsequent formation of "a plume that would travel with the prevailing wind direction."

Under government orders, manufacturers, wastewater treatment plants and chemical companies across the nation compiled worst-case scenarios such as these, spelling out the effects of hypothetical spills, explosions or other catastrophes.

Now, despite some last-minute second thoughts by federal officials concerned about terrorism, much of the information is available for public consumption with a few clicks of a computer keyboard.

The 1990 Clean Air Act required tens of thousands of facilities to file a Risk Management Plan, including a "worst-case chemical action" scenario. The plans were due to the Environmental Protection Agency by June 21, 1999, and were to be posted on the Internet.

As that date approached, opposition mounted. Members of Congress, officials at the FBI and Justice Department and industry groups including the National Association of Manufacturers argued that making such information available via the Internet - particularly estimates of the numbers of human casualties - would provide a road map to terrorists.

Congress passed legislation severely limiting access to the worst-case scenario plans and directing the White House to weigh the risks and benefits of releasing such information. The worst-case scenarios are thus exempted from the Freedom of Information Act for one year.

But two public interest groups discovered a loophole: executive summaries, which contain some worst-case scenario information, were not covered by the exemption.

The information is available at the Environmental Protection Agency's Web site ( but is somewhat difficult to search. So the two nonprofit groups, OMB Watch and The Unison Institute, compiled the reports in an easily searchable format on their "Right to Know" site on the World Wide Web (

Rick Blum, a policy analyst for OMB Watch, said members of the public should be fully informed about possible emergencies at industrial sites in their neighborhoods.

As for fears of terrorism, Blum said: "Anybody can drive down a highway or look at a city street map and identify where chemical facilities are and get whatever information they might need. We live in a democracy. There are certain risks that we have to accept for living in a democracy and for having a well-informed public."

The "Right to Know" Web site contains summaries of risk management plans for 100 New Jersey companies. There is a worst-case scenario, and an alternate scenario considered to be slightly more realistic.

Many companies reported that worst-case spills or discharges would be fully contained within company boundaries. Others project effects outside the company property, but only vaguely: Amerchol Corp. in Edison wrote that a worst-case release of 93,700 pounds of ethylene oxide "could impact off-site public receptors."

But there are some specific details. Elan Chemical Co. in Newark noted that a new Essex County Correctional Facility is being built 300 feet from company property and would be within the impact area of a vapor cloud explosion stemming from a leak of ethyl chloride.

In reporting potential catastrophes, many companies noted that EPA requirements forced them to disregard elaborate security measures while assuming the worst possible meteorological conditions.

Tropicana, for instance noted that it runs "a comprehensive emergency response program" that includes annual full-scale drills. Solutia said its railroad tank cars have thick steel walls and are tested to withstand more than three times normal operating pressure.

Jeff Van, spokesman for the Chemical Manufacturers Association, said chemical manufacturers have supported the risk management program since the start because communities, including police and fire departments, should know everything they can about local facilities.

But Van cautioned, "It would be an error to focus on these worst-case scenarios, because everything has to fail - every system, every redundant system, everything."

Overall, he added, "there is very useful information contained in the risk management plans that will give people a very good sense of what a facility is doing to prevent accidents - and, heaven forbid - if an accident should occur, what systems they have in place to prevent the accident from becoming huge."

AP-ES-09-15-99 1724EDT<

-- Homer Beanfang (, September 16, 1999


But Van cautioned, "It would be an error to focus on these worst-case scenarios, because everything has to fail - every system, every redundant system, everything."

Apparently Mr. Van has never had a serious encounter with the legendary Mr. Murphy.

-- Sam (, September 16, 1999.

As a consultant, and former process engineer at several plants, the types of scenarios mandated as "worst case" are in most cases physically impossible. Granted, most severe accidents occur when more than one failure occurs. However, the EPAs guidelines for "worst case" involved the instantaneous release of ALL of the contents of a vessel (tank, drum, etc.). Additionally, where the material is a liquid, it must vaporize instantaneously, unless it was originally refrigerated.

Seeing as componants of gasoline were among the chemicals listed in the EPA regulation, can anyone tell me of a time when they've filled their gas tanks and had all of the gasoline instantaneously vaporize? I know I can't, even when the temps have been more than 1100F. This is just one example of government absurdity aimed at pacifying the environmental extremists.

The majority of the RMP regulation is a repeat of existing regulations. The remainder, which originally was designed to assist emergency responders to aid in responding to incidents, has lost touch with reality. If you really want to get a truer picture of potential hazards at the RMP facilities, then you should look at the alternate case scenarios each facility had to submit. These are based on real potential failures, not imaginary one.

Additionally, one of the reasons it is so hard to search through the EPA's database is to prevent the "terrorists" from dumping mass quantities of data from the WWW. These "right-to-know" groups are basically bypassing security measures the EPA put in to make it harder for the terrorists. So much for National Security...


-- Larry (, September 16, 1999.

But it's still reassuring to know that in their worst case senario, my home is still outside of the range of one of these events.

-- Shelia (, September 16, 1999.

Um, Shelia, I guess it *is* nice for you.

-- no (s**t@sher.lock), September 16, 1999.

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