Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Process Upsets and Chemical Release Reporting

I ran into a brief article on ChemicalWorld.com that caused me to thing about process upsets and the CSB’s chemical release reporting requirements. According to the article and employee was exposed to sulfur dioxide at a North Alabama chemical plant early last month. Two days after his exposure he was admitted to the hospital for breathing problems and then died from those problems last week, better than a month after the incident.

I did a quick check of the local news outlets and could find no reports about the incident. There were two articles about the employee’s death (here and here). Both articles were brief and contained second-hand accounts of the incident from the employees wife. The wife is quoted as describing the incident this way:

“There were 3 of them out there, outside, working on the towers. There are two towers that the chemicals flow through. Supposedly the excess chemicals flow into what they called the pit. When they went out that night, the smell from the pit was different than what it had been in the past.”

Rather than a classic ‘chemical release’ this sounds like some sort of chemical process upset that released unusual fumes. If the fumes were sulfur dioxide, then it would not have taken a large quantity of those fumes to cause damage to the employees lungs if he were close to the source of the fumes.

Now, according to the definitions in 40 CFR 1604.2, such fumes of sulfur dioxide would be an ‘accidental release’; “an unanticipated emission of a regulated substance or other extremely hazardous substance into the ambient air from a stationary source.” On the date of the release, it would not have been considered a reportable release under §1604.3 because it was not an “accidental release resulting in a fatality, serious injury, or substantial property damage.” Once the employee was admitted to the hospital for injuries caused by those fumes, the accidental release became a reportable release.

Interestingly, in this case, if the company had reported the release when the employee when the employee was admitted to the hospital 24 to 36 hours after the incident (the timeline is not clear in the news reports) they would already be significantly late in meeting the 8-hour reporting requirement in §1604.3. The CSB’s discussion of that reporting deadline in the preamble to the final rule last year, makes it clear that they are concerned with the clock starting at the time of the incident, not the time when the owner becomes aware that an incident has occurred.

This probably means that chemical facilities need to seriously consider submitting accidental release reports when process upsets cause even minor releases of hazardous chemicals when personnel may have been exposed to such fumes.

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