Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Reader Comment – 07-20-09 – Ammonia Incident

It was a busy day yesterday and I did not get a chance to formulate a reply to another anonymous comment on the recent fatal anhydrous ammonia spill in Swansea, SC. In this case it appears that Anonymous is someone in the business of supplying emergency response solutions. As such I think that it is important to re-print his lengthy reply in its entirety. Anonymous wrote:
“You bring up many good points regarding not only this chemical event, but chemical events in general. Preventative measures while certainly important are most often not enough and unfortunately it sometimes takes a "newsworthy" event to bring this into the light. “There are readily-available chemical emergency management solutions for both industrial sites, as well as local, county, state and even federal responders and emergency management agencies, that would allow them to effectively monitor, model and quickly determine - using a variety of real-time sensor information, an extensive database of chemicals and GIS data - what chemical(s) is involved, what the release rate of the chemical is/was, where the toxic cloud is headed over time, who will be impacted over time (schools, churches, hospitals, etc. in the projected path) and in what concentrations. This is just a portion of the useful information available. “Such solutions permit informed decision making in the event of an emergency. They can be used as a pre-event planning tool, emergency response decision mechanism and post-event analysis aid. They permit responders to quickly make shelter-in-place and evaluation decisions and thus can and do help to limit the loss of life and property plus minimize the disruption to both business and personal life within nearby areas. “And when linked with available ENS technologies, they provide a superior planning, response and notification solution. “Unfortunately the implementation of such solutions is not currently mandated by government although some states like West Virginia have recently enacted legislation but more and more as deaths occur, one must ask themself - why not?”
The type system that Anonymous describes is something that I have mentioned generically on a number of occasions. An array of chemical detectors is set up surrounding the facility with the highest concentration around the high-risk storage locations. At a facility like the Tanner facility in South Carolina they have the advantage of only requiring a single sensor type because they have a single hazardous chemical, ammonia (the sensors would detect both anhydrous and aqueous forms). Combined with meteorological sensors, a geographic information system (GIS), and sophisticated (but readily available) predictive software and you have an information source for a intelligent emergency response system, providing facility and off-site responders with time critical information about the extent, location and future impact areas for the spill. Now add an electronic emergency notification system (ENS) and you have a system that quickly begins automated notification of potentially affected parties. Combine that with prior chemical threat notification, education and training and you have a system that will greatly reduce the consequences of accidental or deliberate release. I am sure that there must be companies out there that have systems like this commercially available. Anonymous probably works for (or perhaps even owns) such a company. I would love to see a good simulation of how such a system works and would certainly be willing to share a link with my readers. The closing question in the posting by Anonymous is an important question. The reason that state and local governments don’t require better emergency response planning and notification is complex. Obviously such measures cost money that comes straight out of the bottom line since they are not profit centers, but that is the reason that companies avoid such technology, not law makers. The cynical response to that is that law makers are more responsive to businesses than to ordinary citizens, and there is a certain amount of truth in that response. Unfortunately for businesses, when there is enough of a public outcry the politicians do respond and that response is typically more costly than reasonable preventive measures. In this case the response will not likely be requiring sophisticated emergency response measures; it is more likely to be serious mandatory implementation of inherently safer technology. No matter what IST proponents say, mandatory IST provisions will put companies like Tanner Industries out of business. Tanner’s business is the distribution of anhydrous ammonia, a targeted TIH chemical; as more of their customers convert to ‘safer’ alternatives Tanner will loose business. Loose enough business and Tanner will close it’s gates. It would seem to me that companies like Tanner should be leading the charge to implement these emergency response systems. Not only is it the right thing to do, it is likely the only thing that will prevent a serious incident that will make real mandatory IST a political reality.

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