Friday, April 27, 2018

IST Ammonia Systems and Regulatory Triggers

Inherently safer technology, or IST, has long been viewed by industry as code words for replacing hazardous chemicals with less hazardous alternatives. In reality, it also includes reducing the amount of hazardous chemicals stored on site. An interesting article at points out how industrial cooling equipment manufacturers are helping facilities avoid costly regulation compliance issues by reducing the amount of anhydrous ammonia (AA) used in commercial refrigeration units.

While an accompanying article on the same site provides more details on the safety improvement (and on-going safety requirements) for these advanced cooling systems, the first article makes it clear that the goal is reducing the amount of AA on-site below the 10,000-lb threshold that triggers coverage under EPA Risk Management (RMP), OSHA Process Safety Management (PSM) and DHS Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards (CFATS) regulations.

Increase Safety or Reduce Regulatory Burden

Both of the above articles (and another here) strive to show that the advanced refrigeration techniques do enhance safety at the facilities that employ them in ways that extend beyond just reducing the amount of AA on hand. One key method would be removing the need to circulate liquid AA through process areas in the facilities. This greatly reduces the number of places where leaks can happen and moves the remaining potential leak sites away from employees.

If the goal were to simply reduce the amount of AA on hand to avoid regulatory compliance issues, it would seem that the manufacturers would just concentrate on the employment of advanced technology evaporators in current cooling systems. This would seem to be a lower initial cost alternative to reducing inventories below the 10,000-lb trigger. The more complete system change being advocated in these articles do appear to provide increased safety benefits beyond the inventory reduction.

Regulatory Triggers

This provides a good place to talk about the efficacy of regulatory triggers like this 10,000-lb anhydrous ammonia inventory trigger for RMP, PSM and CFATS. If a facility works at ensuring that they never exceed 9,999-lbs of AA on-site, they will not have to worry about complying with the requirements of the regulatory programs mentioned above. Reaching that 10,000-lb trigger, however, means that the facility is required to comply with a host of complicated and expensive regulatory requirements.

Is there a significant difference in the safety and/or security of a facility if they have 9,999-lbs or 10,000-lbs of anhydrous ammonia on hand? Of course not. That one-pound difference has no practical effect on the safety or security risks of the facility. These trigger-based regulatory standards are political artifacts based upon attempts to craft ‘risk-based’ safety and security standards.

The CFATS program acknowledges this trigger problem by having facilities that have reached that trigger submit data (Top Screen) to the Infrastructure Security Compliance Division (ISCD). A more complex threat assessment process uses this data to determine if facilities are at high-risk for terrorist attack and thus require compliance with the CFATS regulations. While the base trigger problem remains, the two-step assessment process acknowledges that risk determination cannot rely on a single factor.

Industry Response

Since regulatory compliance is associated with significant costs, industry has significant financial incentives to avoid coverage under these regulatory programs. When companies are designing new facilities or refurbishing older facilities process designers take these regulatory triggers into account. If it does not significantly interfere with the process efficiency, special care will be taken to avoid reaching the regulatory triggers under these three federal programs.

I remember working at a facility that was planning on using aqueous ammonia to adjust the pH of a chemical manufacturing process. All of the lab work during product development used 20% aqueous ammonia for the formulation, the industry standard concentration. The CFATS program had used that concentration as part of the trigger for ammonia coverage under the program. The chemical distributor that we were using suggested that we should use a new product they were offering, 19% ammonia, so as to avoid CFATS coverage. We changed our formulations.

Regulatory Efficacy

Since the compliance costs required by reaching these regulatory triggers are significant, the question has to be asked, do facilities on either side (±1-lb) of the trigger inventory level present similar levels of risk after regulatory compliance has been achieved by facilities passing the trigger amounts? Since the answer has to be ‘no’, how can we justify the use of these triggers.

For the EPA and OSHA regulations, the simple answer is that regulators had to have some method of separating the wheat from the chaff and this was the most expedient method of setting some sort of regulatory cutoff. The regulators established some measurable standard for risk assessment for each class of hazardous chemical, applied it to individual chemicals, and then rounded the results to some ‘reasonable’ number. No assessment of actual risk at individual facilities was attempted or even considered.

Until the CFATS program came along, this was considered to be the easiest and most efficient way of establishing regulatory limits. Fortunately, time passed, computer processing became more efficient and cheaper, and the internet expanded access to high-speed data communications. The crafters of the CFATS program used these changes to craft a regulatory program that actually attempted to measure the risk at individual facilities before determining whether or not there was sufficient risk at the facility to justify the added costs associated with a fairly extensive security management program. The program did continue to use triggers (and copied the triggers from the RMP/PSM programs where they were applicable), but those numbers only triggered a one-time, relatively inexpensive, reporting requirement that would provide the data necessary for the risk assessment process.

Re-Look at Triggers Required

Perhaps it is time that Congress directs the EPA and OSHA to take a hard look at modifying the RMP and PSM programs to include an actual risk assessment process that addresses whether individual facilities need to establish expensive compliance programs to protect the public (EPA RMP) and facility employees (OSHA PSM) from the chemical hazards found at that specific site. Triggers (possibly even the current triggers) would still be used, but they would trigger a reporting requirement similar to the CFATS Top Screen that would provide information to the respective agency to make the actual regulatory risk-assessment.

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