Taking the Hazard Out of Hazardous Chemicals by Robert A. Barrish

It was 6:30 on the evening of October 21, 1980. Most Delawareans were hurrying home to watch the Phillies play Kansas City Royals in the sixth game of the World Series. That’s how some of us pinpoint the date and time of the state’s most disastrous chemical accident.

Without warning an enormous explosion rocked the small Delaware Bay town of New Castle. It was heard 15 miles away and houses 12 miles away were shaken. Windows were broken in homes six miles away. An eerie orange glow appeared in the dark sky over the area. Within minutes the first reports of cataclysm at the Amoco plant on Route 9 were being broadcast over local radio. Firefighters battled the raging fire for 11 hours.

It was determined later that a faulty maintenance procedure had caused the accident that left six people dead, did property damage of more than $46 million, and eventually lead to the loss of 300 jobs in Delaware.

On December 2, 1984, a toxic gas cloud escaped from a chemical plant in Bhopal, India, killing and injuring thousands. Unfortunately it took that tragedy to focus the world’s attention on the potential for death and destruction by accidents involving extremely hazardous chemicals. It was obvious that dramatic new approaches to chemical management were needed.

In Delaware, legislators passed an Extremely Hazardous Substances Risk Management Act that required the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control to develop a regulation to prevent chemical accidents. The Regulation for the Management of Extremely Hazardous Substances (the EHS regulation) was adopted in September 1990. Both the legislation and regulation were written by the stakeholders, a committee representing state agencies (DNREC, the Department of Public Safety, the Department of Public Health, the State Fire Marshal’s Office), local agencies (New Castle County Department of Safety and Emergency Response), industry (DuPont, ICI, Formosa Plastics and the Texaco-Star Refinery) and concerned citizens. By all accounts the committee did an admirable job.

A two-man Industrial Disaster Prevention Group (IDPG) was formed within DNREC’s Division of Air and Waste Management to enforce the new regulation. An additional engineer was added in 1998. The group’s name was changed to the Accidental Release Prevention Group (ARPG) for consistency with EPA.

Delaware was the third state in the nation to develop a chemical accident prevention regulation and the first to regulate flammable and explosive chemicals in addition to toxic chemicals. At the same time, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) were developing similar accident prevention standards and regulations. Both agencies used the Delaware program as a working model. OSHA adopted its process safety management standards in 1992, and EPA adopted an accidental release prevention regulation in 1996.

Another tribute came from the Council of State Governments, which gave the Delaware program an Innovations Award for creativity, applicability and success. Each year the award goes to eight programs selected from hundreds of entries from all areas of state government across the United States.

What is different about Delaware’s EHS regulation is that it does not prohibit or even discourage the use of extremely hazardous chemicals. It focuses, instead, on ensuring that the chemicals are handled in a safe manner. This is accomplished by requiring companies to have a good equipment maintenance program, written instructions on how to operate the equipment and operator training. The plants also must do an engineering study to discover what equipment can fail, how operators can make mistakes, the probability of equipment failure or human error, and, in the event of an accident, how surrounding areas would be effected. Once all that data is sown in black and white, it is up to plant personnel to determine how best to remedy any shortcomings.

According to Richard Antoff, one of the three chemical engineers who run the state’s accidental release prevention program, "Giving plants some degree of autonomy is one of the things that makes Delaware’s program work so well. They appreciate being able to make decisions based on their own circumstances."

One thing that sets the EHS regulation apart from other environmental rules is the degree of acceptance it has received from the regulated community. According to Antoff, "They recognize the benefits of a safe operation. Many have commented that the EHS regulation not only improves safety, but has positive effects on efficient operation and improved product quality."

While the chemical industry and oil refineries are the lightening rods for public opinion, other types of businesses also are involved with extremely hazardous materials. Water chlorinators, cold storage facilities using ammonia as a refrigerant, and propane distributors having large, bulk storage tanks comprise a significant part of the ARPG’s work. "And they have their share of fires and releases of toxic substances," Antoff notes. In 1990 a drinking water treatment plant in Stanton had a serious fire and chlorine release that sent several firemen to the hospital. An ammonia release from a refrigeration system in the small Kent County town of Wyoming on January 30, 1993 required the evacuation of people two blocks away. In October 1992, an accident at a propane distribution tank in Dover sent a fireball across Route 13 that burned the paint on a passing car.

Compliance inspections began in Delaware in October 1990. Some 25 plants are inspected each year, a quarter of those handling extremely hazardous chemicals. Inspections, which can take the ARPG’s engineers up to four days, are thorough, including detailed reviews of maintenance records, operating procedures, training programs, safety modifications and emergency response procedures. In addition, they examine equipment and talk with plant engineers, plant workers and maintenance people.

"This is one of the few state regulatory programs where we actually spend time talking with the operations personnel. That has proved very successful," Antoff notes. "The people who run the plant often have excellent suggestions on how it can be operated more safely."

Although neither the state nor federal government requires special permits for the use of hazardous chemicals, DNREC did require annual registration by each facility. This will be replaced by the submission of the Risk Management Program to the EPA every five years. In addition, the ARPG usually inspects a new plant before it starts operating to ensure that the proper equipment has been installed and that safe practices are in place. To streamline the process, these inspections are customarily coordinated with those of other state and local agencies and industries that help develop and evaluate emergency response plans.

"After several years of inspections we have found that the chemical plants and refineries have considerable respect for extremely hazardous chemicals and a good to excellent understanding of how to handle them safely," Antoff explains. "We have had to work much harder with some of the chlorinators, ammonia refrigeration people and propane distributors to help them understand the safe handling procedures."

Delaware’s accidental release prevention program goes hand-in-hand with federal and state emergency planning and community right-to-know programs that were put in place to protect the public from chemicals, the ARPG prepares firefighters and emergency personnel to respond appropriately and safely to incidents at those sites and enables them to anticipate the possible need to evacuate nearby residents. In the event of a chemical accident, it is the ARPG’s responsibility to determine the cause and review the facility'’ plans to prevent future mishaps.

Another area in which the EHS regulation complements other environmental programs is in pollution prevention. One recent success story came about when two poultry processing plants in Sussex County reported large releases of anhydrous ammonia to the air from their refrigeration system. ARPG engineers inspected both sites and worked with the poultry producers to improve their equipment maintenance program. Both experienced dramatic reductions in releases, one by 76 percent and the other by 64 percent.

While the EHS regulation includes provisions to fine plants that do not operate safely, the IDPG compliance strategy focuses instead on cooperative compliance. "If safety deficiencies are identified during a routine inspection, we ask that they be corrected in a timely manner," explains Antoff. "If this happens – and it almost always does – there is no fine. Our objective is not to punish, but to get people to run a safe operation."

There have been only four fines meted out. Even then the IDPG engineers have attempted to get as much mileage as possible out of the penalty. The plant owners often are allowed to use some of the fine money to install new equipment, repair old equipment, update procedures and training or provide funds for emergency response.

"Even though our programs is run on a shoestring and we could use the fine money to pay some of our expenses, we are convinced that we get more bang for the buck this way," says Antoff. Though maybe that isn’t a really good analogy to use when discussing chemicals that can cause explosions," the veteran chemical engineer adds with a chuckle.

Annual fees from the regulated community fund the state’s industrial accident prevention program. Amazingly, the per plant cost of the Delaware program is 10 times less than for a similar program in a neighboring state.

The ARPG considers itself a service organization to its customers, the regulated community. "We often provided assistance to small plants that cannot afford the cast of an engineering consultant," Antoff says. "We describe the requirements of the regulation in detail, make recommendations on how to comply and sometimes even give plants certain written procedures that can easily be adapted to their situation."

One such effort has had nationwide repercussions. When the propane distributors in Delaware found it difficult to understand and comply with the EHS regulation, the APRG engineers sat down with their industry trade group, the Delaware Gas Association, and, over a two-year period, jointly developed a generic compliance program. This translated the technical language of the regulation into language more familiar to the propane people. Written operating procedures were developed, as well as check lists and fill-in-the-blank questionnaires. "This has been a real win-win story," according to Antoff. "Now the propane distributors can comply easily and at a much lower cost. We spend much less time doing the inspections. All of this while improving the safe operation of these propane plants." The ARPG entered into a cooperative agreement with EPA to develop a model program for propane distributors throughout the nation. The result was the development of the "Risk Management Program Guidance for Propane users and Small Retailers" and "Risk Management Program for Propane Storage Facilities." Nationally this guidance can be used by 28,000 facilities, which is more than 40 percent of the entire EPA, 112(r) regulated facilities.

The probability of another Amoco incident has been greatly reduced by the EHS program, but recent releases of chlorine in Delaware City, and many more less spectacular releases of other chemicals, tell us that the work is not complete. The ARPG is committed to work harder with its customers to reduce the frequency of chemical accidents in Delaware.


Division Overview and Contacts

| DNREC Online Home | Air Quality Management | Director's Office | Enforcement Section |
| Environmental Response Branch | Site Investigation & Restoration Branch |
| Solid and Hazardous Waste Management Branch |
| Underground Storage Tank Branch
| Text Only | Disclaimer |

| Delaware's Home Page |

© 2000 Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control
89 Kings Hwy Dover, DE 19901 (302) 739-9400

Comments? E-mail the Webmaster

Last Update: 07/23/01 10:36