December 17, 2011
DuPont Demonstrates Safety Training Payoff After Aniline Leak
A statement issued by DuPont on November 9 said trace amounts of aniline were found outside of the company's Beaumont, Texas, plant. Brown pinhole size spots were discovered at a nearby firm and church. DuPont determined the exposure was limited to an area about 800 feet from the site's fence line. The firm is cleaning its neighbor's vehicles and buildings as a precautionary measure to minimize the risk of exposure.
A statement issued by DuPont on November 9 said trace amounts of aniline were found outside of the company’s Beaumont, Texas, plant. Brown pinhole size spots were discovered at a nearby firm and church. DuPont determined the exposure was limited to an area about 800 feet from the site’s fence line. The firm is cleaning its neighbor’s vehicles and buildings as a precautionary measure to minimize the risk of exposure. A trace material in the aniline stream is 4-aminodiphenyl, which contains a health risk in the event of repeated exposure over a long period of time. There is no significant risk due to the November 3 incident because of the short-term, low level potential for exposure. DuPont indicated its aniline unit remains shut down.
When it comes to the potential for humans to come in contact with carcinogens, why do we have evolving versions of the truth?
On the National Response Center, a caller reported that the situation had been fixed and that the incident had exposed 0.25 mile (one mile is equal to 5,280 feet, therefore, one quarter of a mile is equal to 5,280 / 4 = 1,320 feet). Yet, per DuPont’s regional manager of public affairs, Aaron Woods’ published statements on November 3, 2011 at 2:08 pm, “there are no impacts to the community, as the release was confined to the site.”
On a later report, it was stated that “… a relief valve failed and spewed 1,000 pounds of the chemical aniline into the air. The brownish-orange liquid coated much of the north end of the industrial complex, which include the Lucite and Pandora plants.” Despite earlier reports that none of the chemical escaped the boundaries of the plant, Aaron Woods, later confirmed that there were leaks.
In a subsequent interview, Mr. Woods announced that “up to 5,000 pounds of aniline may have been released into the air” — which is far more than a trace. These 5,000 pounds of aniline apparently escaped outside of the building extending up to 800 feet beyond the fence line of the facility. Given the vaporizing nature of toxic aniline, there is a high potential that a much larger area may have been contaminated.
Contradicting the earlier public statements — “There are no impacts to the community, as the release was confined to the site,” Dr. Matthew Hoke, an environment microbiologist at Lamar University said “4-ADP can affect people differently and saying a one-time exposure won’t cause cancer doesn’t seem wise.”
Per discussion with Mr. Woods on November 17, 2011, it appears that DuPont was busy being immediately responsive and had decided to take a proactive measure in providing the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) with a supplemental voluntary report which they did not need to complete. Note that DuPont apparently did not have to complete any report according to current industry standards as Dupont’s latest findings had no reportable quantity breach of aniline — which means that less than 5,000 pounds of aniline was released. Mr. Woods could not provide me with official numbers but commented that the final results “were well below.”
Our recommendations here are that a communications plan with special crisis management resources should be included as part of all business continuity, security and disaster recovery programs. Quarterly hands-on training exercises need to be taking place including the communications team where pre-established templates reviewed by the legal teams are prepared in advance.
Why Should We Care?
The inconsistencies in the amount of reported aniline spewed and the variations on the breadth of contamination outside the plant are quite worrisome, as aniline exposure can result in death. Given that the City of Beaumont has a reported city population of 118,296 per the 2010 census, is considered a part of the Golden Triangle (a major industrial area mainly led by the oil industry on the Gulf Coast), and hosts over 15,000 students at Lamar University, any potential chemical exposure is noteworthy as it could have an adverse impact on the Texas economy.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), aniline is a “probable human carcinogen.” It is a toxic chemical that can be absorbed through the skin and by inhalation. When over-exposed, one is poisoned as the hemoglobin is converted to methemoglobin which prevents the release of oxygen. Exposure can also result in anemia, digestive disturbances, vertigo, lack of energy, headaches, gastrointestinal disturbances, lethargy, mental confusion, acute respiratory challenges, tumors, cyanosis, bladder cancer and possible death by asphyxiation.
Aniline is a parent substance which is used in products such as: rubber chemicals, dyes and pigments, hydroquinone, drugs, agrochemicals, specialty fibers and other beneficial cleantech products. As we are aggressively learning how to recycle and transform toxic and explosive waste into fantastic green solutions highly beneficial to today and tomorrow’s world, we must also find a way to apply, as well as continuously test, preventive safety and security measures to all phases of the production of aniline.
According to published Centers For Disease Control And Prevention toxicity reports, exposed volunteers were apparently able to tolerate one hour of exposure to aniline ranging from 50 to 100-160 parts per million with only moderate adverse health effects. However, to-date, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health recommends as part of its carcinogen policy that the “most protective respirators be worn for aniline at any detectable concentration.” The lethal oral consumption per animal has been estimated for a dog at 35 parts per million over 195 mg, a mouse at 84 parts per million over 464 mg, a rat at 480 parts per million over 440 mg and a guinea pig at 72 parts per million over 400 mg.
One of the toxic effects of aniline and its components is bladder cancer. In this regard, one finds it curious to note that there is a hospital in Beaumont (Beaumont Hospital, Royal Oak) which has been named a Blue Distinction Center for bladder cancer. One would further wonder if the genesis of the need for a center for bladder cancer in Beaumont is the exposure to aniline.
Even more troubling than the toxicity and deadly effects of aniline was the acknowledgement that 4-aminodiphenyl / 4-ADP was also released. 4-ADP is far more toxic and carcinogenic than aniline. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 4-ADP is a “known human bladder carcinogen and animal studies have reported an increase in bladder and liver tumor from oral exposure.” And, while there is a small allowable human exposure limit for aniline, there is no such exposure level for 4-ADP. Even exposed vegetation and aquatic life will encounter serious negative effects from exposure to 4-ADP. In more concrete terms, this means that plant workers and local residents of Beaumont who may have been exposed to 0.05 percent (or approximately 25 pounds) of 4-ADP are seriously at risk.
Through airborne vapor or potential contamination of the local waters, the contamination might have also reached out to a much larger area than assessed lately — potentially leading to contaminated and unclean areas. As 4-ADP has been banned from most countries and is heavily regulated in the USA, the amount of aniline released in the DuPont Beaumont plant may pose far more serious and long term risks to the employees exposed as well as Beaumont citizens and visitors. Fortunately, DuPont took immediate extensive preventive remediation measures, employees had been trained to respond rapidly through flagship safety training programs, and DuPont has shut down its operations until completion of its internal investigation.
Given that DuPont became the largest supplier of aniline in the United States with its acquisition in late 2002 of ChemFirst — now First Chemical Corporation (upon which time the deal was delayed as a result of an explosion) — as well as second largest producer worldwide, accounts for 25 percent of US capacity, and has been producing mononitrobenzene (MNB)/aniline for 60 years, it has continuously refined and optimized the process technology of its offerings and can, therefore, through tech innovation, act proactively. In this challenged economy, we salute DuPont’s management for shutting down its production plant of 160,000 aniline MTA and encourage higher safety preventive measures by 3rd parties currently providing pipeline-based transportation, transmission and distribution.
How Did This Happen?
Given that DuPont has indicated that a release valve had blown out during the start-up operations of the plant, one can question why a relief valve blew out. In pre-discussion with Mr. Woods on this topic on November 17, 2011, he commented that DuPont was prepared to take immediate remediation actions, has shut down the plant until further notices, and that an investigation is underway.
One can reason that one of two things might have occurred:
- too much pressure was applied in the start-up process forcing the relief valve to blow out; or,
- corrosion has taken place on the pipeline where the relief valve was installed resulting in the blow out of the valve.
Clearly, DuPont owes an explanation and is providing a final report on this topic to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. Additional questions that may or may not be addressed should include: Was the cause a “malfunction of the equipment,” an error in start-up operation, or a serious corrosion of the pipeline? Regardless of what might have been the cause and who is responsible, let’s focus on the future as this incident was preventable.
We should not be satisfied and pacified by comments that this was a minor incident, as it appears there is a chance that health challenges may yet surface in future years.
Can 5,000 pounds have been released within one minute? Can one blown-out valve be replaced or reset within one minute with a site shelter-in-place? If the workers were running out of the plant, who hit the shut-off switch and, how did this estimate come about? Have there been other similar incidents that took place, but were not reported? As aniline plants are largely deployed in Asia (especially in China, India and Japan), can we be assured of the same level of safety standards and trained staff as has been deployed here in the United States? With 4-ADP, even the smallest of amounts can result in health challenges, and thus it is best to be proactive in ensuring the safety of all. In the event of potential contamination, exposed individuals are advised to consult a doctor as quickly as possible.
As winds were blowing heavily and it was raining during the incident, it must have been extremely difficult to contain contamination in more than an acre of land and to catch all of the water runoff. Given the probability of water penetration between the plastic sheets, contamination may have occurred and moved from land to a nearby river. For the record, aniline is apparently also very toxic to aquatic organisms so ongoing water tests are highly recommended. Further, particles may have been flown through the heavy winds so preventive medical consultations may be advisable.
So far, this analysis has been about the impacts of this reported leak. The next phase will be to focus on the most important lessons learned in relation to prevention. For example, if the problem was precipitated by corrosion in the pipeline where the relief valve was installed, then one may want to examine the current regulatory requirements for plants producing aniline and have complete shutdown enforcement capabilities when lethal toxics are leaked over outdoor areas. One may also want to assess if similar corrosion exists in other plants. Lives are on the line here. Because health issues are not immediately apparent, it does not mean that people who were exposed will not suffer the consequences in some fashion, big or small. In order to ensure the well-being of all, merited efforts, safety regulations and enforcement penalties should be revisited and aggressively expanded upon.
Given the impressive standards that DuPont/First Chemical has maintained — which are claimed to be “10 times better than regulations” — we applaud their efforts and willingness to discuss the challenges they are overcoming.
We look forward to finding more about the results and coming up with better solutions for everyone’s future. As First Chemical (aniline production division of DuPont) reports an annual payroll of more than $11,000,000 and offers financial stability to its community, we look forward to their ongoing active contribution to energy safety and security practices globally.
Anyck Turgeon collaborated with Col. (Ret.) Ben I. Gomez in writing this article. Before his retirement, Col. Gomez was Commander of the Federal Simulation and Computer Evaluation Center, FEDSIM, in Washington, DC., Commander of the Defense Logistics Services Center, DLSC, in Michigan, and Commander of the 7th Communications Group at the Pentagon, United States Air Force.