Chemical firms show safety plan

Companies outline what could happen if accident occurred

EPA requires disclosure

Scenarios are called unlikely by officials, environmentalists

June 20, 1999|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

However far-fetched, this is the fear: A rail car at a chemical plant in southern Baltimore ruptures without warning, releasing its full contents -- 180,000 pounds of chlorine -- into the atmosphere in a scant 10 minutes. The resulting toxic plume spreads for 14 miles, putting 1.6 million people at risk of property damage, injuries or worse.

That worst-case scenario -- considered improbable if not impossible by experts -- was one of several disclosed yesterday morning during an awkward set of open houses at six of the state's largest chemical plants, all located near Curtis Bay.

During the three-hour session, chemical executives shared with the public their worst nightmares about their plants -- and, in the next breath, insisted that residents have nothing to worry about.

The unusual disclosures were prompted by a new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requirement intended to reassure the public about the safety of chemical plants.

An estimated 30,000 U.S. industrial facilities that use toxic chemicals -- from oil and chemical refineries to water treatment plants and military bases -- are expected to file comprehensive risk-management plans with the federal government.

While the plans mostly repeat information that the chemical industry has long disclosed to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, two new disclosures have sparked controversy: five-year accident records and worst-case scenarios.

With 85 million Americans living within five miles of a chemical facility, the industry has sought to control public fears with advance announcements of scenarios, like yesterday's.

"We want our message to be not only, `This is the theoretical worst that could happen,' but also, `This is what we're doing about it,' " says Enrique Bertran, the chairman of the Maryland Chemical Industry Council.

Said Dave Mahler, environmental manager at Condea Vista, one of the six companies open yesterday: "Frankly, this creates a dilemma for us. We have a commitment to providing this information to the communities around us. But we don't want anyone to get the wrong idea."

On one hand, environmentalists and chemical executives say the EPA requirements have the potential to sow fear. The worst-case scenarios are being presented on maps -- with huge circles showing affected areas that include all of Baltimore -- though EPA officials say they are not intended to represent a public danger zone. And the worst-case scenarios -- typically involving the sudden catastrophic failure of a tank -- "are not realistic," says Baltimore Fire Chief Bill Martin, who leads the Local Emergency Planning Committee.

On the other hand, even chemical executives concede the industry has contributed to fear by invoking the threat of terrorism to argue that such scenarios should not be made widely available. The Chemical Manufacturers Association -- with support from the FBI and the Justice Department -- pushed successfully this year to keep the worst-case scenarios off the Internet so that saboteurs could not target chemical plants with the intent of causing injuries.

"The whole issue scares the hell out of me in both ways," says Rose Hindla, a resident of Wagner's Point, a neighborhood so close to chemical plants it is being relocated.

Hindla was angry to learn last week that her new house in Anne Arundel County could be affected under the worst-case scenarios of herbicide maker FMC Corp., detergent producer Condea Vista and water-treatment-chemical maker Delta.

"If I had known ahead of time, I never would have put a contract down on that house," she said.

The disclosure requirements were part of the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, though it took the EPA six years to develop regulations and another three years to put them in place.

In Baltimore, the disclosure comes at a tense time: After two major chemical accidents last year, the chemical industry and three levels of government have embarked on an unprecedented relocation of the Fairfield and Wagner's Point neighborhoods.

Community leaders in neighborhoods such as Brooklyn and Curtis Bay are expected to use the data to argue that they perhaps should be moved, too.

"I know they say 14 miles isn't realistic," says Doris McGuigan, a local environmentalist and president of Concerned Citizens for a Better Brooklyn. "But if that's true, why does the government make them publish it? It's a reminder that people shouldn't be living anywhere near the plants."

Yesterday, on a clear and sunny late-spring morning, few residents turned up to hear the presentations.

Though companies provided a shuttle bus, a fire chief and three environmentalists were the only visitors to all five plants required to file with EPA: Condea Vista, FMC, Delta, Rhodia and Millennium. A sixth plant, the Grace Davison facility in Curtis Bay, does not use chemicals that require disclosure but decided to open its door and release a worst-case scenario anyway.

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