FINAL EDITION WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 5 , 2018
DELAWARE MEMORIAL BRIDGE CLOSURE
Toxic chemical threat should renew focus on plant safety
The Sunday, Nov. 25, six-hour closure of the entire Delaware Memorial Bridge - the result of a toxic gas leak from a large chemical plant nearby - was an unwelcome surprise to many thousands of weary motorists returning home from Thanksgiving holidays on one of the year's busiest travel days. But to those who follow the state of the nation's chemical industry, such events unfortunately are little surprise at all.
While details remain scarce, the company responsible, Croda International, reported a release of ethylene oxide from a newly commissioned process abutting the bridge on the Delaware shoreline. Ethylene oxide is toxic, carcinogenic, and highly flammable, capable of exploding at a wide range of concentrations, even in the absence of oxygen.
The explosion of just 50 pounds of ethylene oxide at a California sterilization facility in 2004 caused severe structural damage, shattering heavy steel equipment and idling the plant for nine months. By comparison, the Croda facility has more than 1.4 million pounds of ethylene oxide, according to EPA data. How much of that leaked out in Delaware remains to be determined.
The permanent presence of this potentially deadly chemical beneath a major bridge connecting New Jersey and Delaware is definitely cause for concern. Delaware Bridge authorities tweeted out their agreement with one exasperated commenter who asked, "Who in their right mind would allow someone to build a chemical plant next to one of the most traveled bridges in the country?"
One chemical disaster five years ago should have already led to major changes in how the country regulates the location of hazardous chemical sites. On the evening of April17, 2013, a fire of undetermined origin broke out in a fertilizer distributor in the small town of West, Texas. Within 20 minutes, the fire caused a colossal ammonium nitrate explosion, devastating hundreds of nearby homes and businesses. Fifteen people - including 12 volunteer firefighters - died in the blast.
In its final report on the disaster, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board concluded that the issue of hazardous chemical facilities sited too near populated communities was "not an anomaly" but rather "a nationwide problem" pointing to investigations of 13 other major incidents.
Board investigators termed the West explosion "another unnecessary and deadly reminder that little has been done to address the risks of locating communities near facilities handling hazardous chemicals." They contrasted the handsoff approach in the U.S. to the more aggressive stance of the United Kingdom and other European countries, where hazardous chemical regulators must review the siting of new facilities after weighing the risks to the nearby public.
Responding to the West disaster, President Barack Obama issued an executive order pledging to modernize federal oversight of chemical facilities. A year later after a series of public "listening sessions," the EPA said it would consider regulating hazardous facility siting and requiring "buffer zones" around plants. But action stalled in the face of industry opposition, and ultimately the EPA punted on facility siting and issued a modest regulatory update just a week before Obama left office in January 2017.
In contrast to the timid progress under Obama, the Trump administration is in full retreat. At the behest of the chemical industry, the Trump EPA immediately suspended the enforcement of Obama's last-minute regulatory changes, and then proposed a permanent rollback of provisions to require plants to consider safer chemicals, conduct independent safety audits and provide greater information to surrounding communities. The mandate for plants to review safer technologies would have finally aligned federal requirements with a decades-old New Jersey state law.
Trump also proposed to eliminate the Chemical Safety Board -calling its work "duplicative" - and has declined to nominate any board members to run the beleaguered agency, which now has lost half its investigative staff. One thing is certain however: without a major change, chemical plant accidents will continue, causing deaths, injuries and catastrophic community damage, and costing businesses and consumers billions of dollars.
The Delaware Memorial Bridge closure should not be yet another ignored wake-up call that the U.S. has done too little to prevent chemical releases and their harm to workers and the public. The new Congress has an opportunity to reverse the disastrous drift and put chemical plant safety back on the nation's agenda.
Daniel Horowitz, Ph.D., an organic chemist, served as managing director of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board from 2010 to 2018.
On Dec 7, 2018, at 4:25 PM, NEAL LANGERMAN <neal**At_Symbol_Here**CHEMICAL-SAFETY.COM> wrote:All
Please contact your Congressional representatives, both your
district Representative and your U.S. Senators and urge that
they support CFATS reauthorization and CSB funding and full
The reauthorization bills pending are:
Senate Bill S3405
House Bill H.R. 6992.
Current authorization expires mid-January 2019 and CFATS is
strongly supported by the chemical enterprise, including
The budget of CSB is $12-13 million/year. We need this
Please make these three phone calls in the next seven days
so action can be taken promptly with the new Congress.
Thank you and please make your professional voice heard.
Safety is the practice of fixed and unbendable principles,
the first of which is to be flexible at all times.
Paraphrase of Everett Dirksen.
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