Chemical Plant Leaks Raise Safety Questions : Federal Records Show Toxic Accidents, Though Mostly Small, Occur Regularly Throughout U.S.

Times Staff Writer

Last Jan. 21 started off worse than most Mondays for workers at Vista Chemicals Inc., one of a dozen chemical factories that sprout from the industrial flatlands south of Baton Rouge, La.

A rupture disc on a Vista reactor pipe blew loose under pressure at 7:45 a.m., and more than 800 pounds of methyl chloride gas, a narcotic and irritant, wafted into the air before workers could shut down the line and stop the leak.

Vista’s misery had plenty of company. On that day and the next, toxic gases also escaped from plants in Michigan, New Jersey and Virginia, as well as another in Louisiana. By the end of the week, 10 plants recorded accidental leaks of poisonous gas, one of them three times bigger than the leak at Union Carbide’s Institute, W. Va., plant that sent 135 people to hospitals last month.

500 Gas Accidents

If the week of Jan. 21 seems freakish, federal records suggest otherwise. Nearly 500 toxic-gas mishaps--about nine a week--occurred at U.S. chemical plants in the year that ended July 31, according to reports filed with the U.S. Coast Guard under federal law.

A majority of those leaks were small, and only 30 injuries were recorded, none fatal. But the reports nevertheless raise disturbing questions about chemical plant safety in the wake of the Institute mishap and the December, 1984, gas disaster that killed 2,000 near another Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India.


Large toxic-gas accidents are not nearly so uncommon as injury and death records indicate, the reports show, and Union Carbide is far from alone in suffering potentially dangerous lapses in safety practices. Some experts believe that the reports suggest that some companies have ignored routine maintenance and training programs that would lessen the risk of major gas accidents.

Safety Record Criticized

“There aren’t more than a very small handful of corporations in the chemical industry that have made safety an integral part of their management programs, even after Bhopal,” said one leading Washington consultant on industrial safety and pollution problems, who asked not to be named. “I’d say you’re talking about the four or five big ones, and that’s about it.”

The reports also suggest that federal job-safety regulators have overlooked the sorts of management and engineering problems that are the major causes of toxic-gas leaks. Records of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration show that chemical plants with lengthy and persistent toxic accidents have rarely been cited for leak-related safety violations.

Although the agency has an ambitious plan to correct those omissions, OSHA’s acting administrator, Patrick R. Tyson, said it is unclear whether he has authority to force improvements in such areas as maintenance and safety training.

A yearlong history of chemical plant gas leaks was culled by reporters from computer records of the National Response Center for Hazardous Materials Spills, a Coast Guard clearinghouse for reports of toxic accidents and oil spills. Federal law requires that the center be notified of most accidents involving toxic chemicals regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency.

However, the gas-leak list is incomplete. The EPA’s list of toxic chemicals omits some poisons and sets arbitrary minimum levels for reporting many others. States can exempt some kinds of leaks. And even industry officials say the law is unknown to many small companies and ignored by other firms. Only about 150 of 5,000 chemical factories nationwide reported accidental toxic-air leaks during the 12 months surveyed.

Requirements Questioned

“I don’t have any doubt in my mind that a lot of folks just don’t understand the reporting requirements,” said Jerry B. Martin, environmental control manager for E. I. Du Pont de Nemours’ Louisiana division, “including the people in Congress who wrote it.”

Nevertheless, the record paints a convincing picture of widespread and regular factory accidents, occasionally involving chemicals on a par with the deadly methyl isocyanate that devastated Bhopal. Some highlights:

--Among the 100 or so toxic gases released were phosgene, a nerve gas used in World War I; ethylene dichloride, an extremely severe irritant and suspected carcinogen; nitric oxide, another severe irritant, and acrylonitrile and vinyl chloride, two known carcinogens. Two less exotic but deadly gases--chlorine and ammonia--were leaked scores of times each, sometimes in clouds weighing several tons.

Toxic Levels

All of those chemicals are considered toxic in concentrations above 25 parts per million. By comparison, the most common gas in the Institute factory leak, methylene chloride, is toxic above 100 parts per million.

--Although size is not necessarily an indicator of danger, toxic-gas accidents of a size that could cause widespread injury were not uncommon. Thirty-five of the 480 reported toxic leaks were larger than the 2,800-pound cloud that escaped from Institute. One ammonia leak was reported to be 40 tons--as large as the methyl isocyanate gas cloud that blanketed much of Bhopal.

--Perhaps most important, the reports suggest that most accidental gas emissions could have been prevented. Small oversights--corroded pipes, weakened gaskets, broken gauges, poorly timed chemical reactions--were cited in virtually every leak report.

Repeated Mistakes

Even repeated mistakes failed to ring any warning bells at some plants. Dow Chemical’s factory in Freeport, Tex., blamed power failures for four straight chlorine leaks, apparently without considering a backup electrical system. Four of five leaks at a Hercules Inc. plant in Hopewell, Va., were attributed to failed pressure-relief valves.

“The fact that an accident could happen a second time is terrible. The fact that it could happen a third or fourth time is inexcusable,” said Dick Boggs, executive director of Organization Resources Counselor Inc., a Washington safety adviser to Fortune 500 companies. “It’s clearly indicative of a problem.”

Ken Silver, an analyst with the environmental lobby Citizen Action, calls such regular accidental emissions “indicative of poor management, poor maintenance and environmental callousness.”

Even chemical company officials agree. But despite growing pressure for safety reforms after the Institute mishap, the industry, its consultants and its environmental critics are far from concurring on how to prevent future accidents.

Legislation Stalled

Environmentalists, led in Congress by Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), favor tighter regulation of chemical plants. A Waxman bill now stalled in the House Commerce Committee would require chemical companies to employ the best available technology to control and repair both accidental and routinely permitted toxic-gas leaks.

The Chemical Manufacturers Assn. opposes the measure, saying in June that “an effective control program may be designed on the basis of periodic monitoring and repair, without the need to install special leak control equipment.” While conceding the case for more regulation of chemical plants, the industry group called for “flexible” rules that would allow it to reduce the chances of leaks in the cheapest and most effective ways possible.

Boggs, however, noted that most chemical companies appear to have done very little with the almost unlimited flexibility they now enjoy.

“One key is preventive maintenance rather than just maintenance,” he said. “Don’t wait until a seal develops a leak on the floor before you fix the seal. . . . It’s definitely more expensive in the short run, but haven’t we reached a point where it’s more cost-effective compared to the possible consequences of what could happen?”

Boggs said he believes so, but he added that “in almost no cases do we find that (attitude) out there.”

Du Pont Program

There are exceptions. Du Pont, the scion of American chemical firms, has the best-regarded safety program in the industry as well as a better-than-average record on toxic-air leaks. One reason, Boggs and company officials agree, is that the firm got its start making gunpowder--a business in which even small lapses invariably were fatal.

“We work on the premise that all injuries and illnesses can be prevented,” said John Page, Du Pont’s chief safety official. “Safety is like getting up in the morning and putting on your shoes and socks. It’s the way we live.”

Perhaps Du Pont’s most effective safety measure is a firm rule that makes workers, managers and company executives jointly responsible for accidents that occur on their watches. Salaries and promotions are based in part on safety performance. “We’ve had situations where all levels of management have paid a performance penalty--they’re no longer in their jobs, or they’ve received less pay,” Page said.

Dow Chemical is another major firm with a well-regarded safety record but, unlike Du Pont, it reported large numbers of toxic-leak accidents at some plants, including 42 generally small emissions from a factory in Plaquemine, La.

‘No Flexibility’

Jerry B. Martin, environmental control manager for the firm’s Louisiana division, said the company’s seemingly poor record stems from a company decision that the reporting law “has no flexibility and that we’re going to report a spill when we have one.”

Still, he said, the Plaquemine plant has installed double seals on some tanks and pipes and has bought a new chemical incinerator to control emissions that have occurred when some systems were shut down for maintenance and cleaning.

By year’s end, Martin said, “someone will physically check all the pump seals, flanges, any place you’d suspect would be susceptible to a leak, once a month.” Similar monitoring programs will be required at all chemical firms in the state by 1987.

OSHA next month will begin sending teams of safety inspectors to make “soup-to-nuts” reviews of chemical plants, examining long-ignored safety indicators such as maintenance and engineering. The agency is conducting such a review of Union Carbide’s Institute plant in the wake of the August accident.

OSHA Embarrassed

Tyson, acting OSHA administrator, said regulators were embarrassed by the Institute accident, which occurred only a few months after OSHA regulators had inspected the factory’s methyl isocyanate production line and declared it safe. The equipment that sprang a leak was unrelated to methyl isocyanate production.

“There were 22 operations in the plant, and we only looked at methyl isocyanate,” Tyson said. “Having gotten ourselves burned, we’ve decided we need to look at the whole plant.”

Future OSHA reviews will target plants that make or use any of a long list of highly toxic chemicals now being prepared by an EPA panel on hazardous air pollutants. Neither OSHA nor EPA has relied on federally required toxic-leak reports to winnow down the number of “problem” chemical plants.

What OSHA can do if it discovers design or maintenance problems is not clear. The agency’s regulations do not specifically allow fines or citations for sloppy preventive maintenance programs or poorly designed manufacturing processes.


Toxic gas leaks from chemical plants resulting in injuries during the 12 months ending July 31, 1985.

Aug. 6, 1984: Arco Pipeline, Independence, Kan.; 90-minute leak of ethylene gas; one injured.

Nov. 8, 1984: Stauffer Chemical, Axis, Ala.; leak of 1,000 pounds of chlorine; one injured.

Nov. 12, 1984: Upjohn Palmer Chemical, Laport, Tex.; 5,000 pounds of phosgene and 3,000 pounds of monochloro benzene; two injured.

Jan. 26, 1985: Union Carbide, Hahnville, La.; more than 100 pounds of ammonia and amines; one injured.

Jan. 30, 1985: Monsanto Co., St. Louis; less than five pounds of fluorine; one injured.

Feb. 20, 1985: Essex Industrial Chemical Co., Baltimore; 100 gallons of fuming sulfuric acid; five injured.

March 7, 1985: Union Carbide, South Charleston, W. Va.; 5,415 pounds of acetone; six injured.

March 28, 1985: Matlack Inc., Santa Fe Springs, Calif.; unknown quantity of anhydrous hydrogen fluoride; three injured.

March 29, 1985: Occidental Chemical, Hahnville, La.; 700 pounds of ammonia; two injured.

April 11, 1985: International Flavors and Fragrances, Union Beach, N.J.; unknown quantity of chlorine; one injured.

April 24, 1985: Badische Corp., Freeport, Tex.; 100 pounds of nitric oxide; four injured.

June 14, 1985: Borg Warner Chemicals, Parkersburg, W. Va.; unknown quantity of butadiene; three injured.

Source: U.S. Coast Guard’s National Response Center for Hazardous Materials Spills.

Times Staff Writer Jonathan Eig contributed to this story.