Tacoma Chlorine Plant Will Pay Penalty for Leak, Donate to F.D.


Susan Gordon | | Friday, January 18, 2008

TACOMA, Wash. -- Owners of a Tacoma Tideflats chemical plant have agreed to pay a $15,804 penalty and donate nearly $60,000 worth of emergency response equipment to the Tacoma Fire Department after a federal investigation of a February 2007 chlorine leak, government officials announced Wednesday.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials claimed that operators of the Pioneer Americas plant at 2001 E. Thorne Road failed to properly notify authorities after a worker accidentally released nearly 900 pounds of chlorine.

The settlement became final Tuesday. Pioneer, now also known as Olin Chlor Alkali Products, has 30 days to pay the fine and 90 days to buy and donate the equipment, EPA officials said.

"I have the checks ready for them already," said plant manager George Karscig. He plans to order the Fire Department equipment by early next week. It might not be delivered for a month or two, he said.

On the night of the Feb. 12, 2007, accident, ambulance crews took about 25 people to area hospitals, including the worker and about a dozen firefighters. None of the injured was admitted, but one firefighter later told state safety investigators that he was still spitting up blood the following day.

"Chlorine gas can be extremely dangerous, which is why immediately notifying the appropriate agencies is so important," said Mike Bussell, director of the EPA's Office of Compliance and Enforcement in Seattle.

Suzanne Powers, the EPA's regional enforcement coordinator, said the accidental chlorine release triggered an automatic alarm, but when the alarm company representative called 911, the woman didn't know why she was calling.

"They were lucky," Powers said. "This gave them an opportunity to have a lesson without anybody getting killed. Hopefully, they will learn from it and don't do it again."

Federal laws require chlorine handlers to immediately report spills of at least 10 pounds of chlorine to local, state and federal authorities. Responsible parties are required to specify the volume of the spill and explain the likely effect on human health, among other things, Powers said.

In this instance, the plant manager called the National Response Center, a Coast Guard facility, about 1 hours after the release occurred, she said.

Karscig said his company has revised its emergency response plan to ensure compliance.

"There is a 15-minute time frame when reports need to be made. We were outside that time frame," he said.

As for the Fire Department equipment, the company has promised to buy two high-tech portable weather stations, four hand-held gas monitors, a thermal imaging camera and two gas-tight protective suits. In all, the estimated cost is $59,144, according to settlement documents.

Last July, Pioneer Americas paid a $1,650 state Department of Labor and Industries fine related to the same leak.

State officials cited Pioneer for two violations of regulations governing analysis of industrial hazards. One was a failure to analyze engineering or administrative controls that could prevent or reduce risks to employees who fill or unload chlorine containers. The second was a failure to recognize the possibility of human error as a cause.

The penalty prompted Pioneer officials to review their procedures and equipment. On Aug. 26, the company submitted the required documentation to state officials, a state official said.

"We were pretty thorough in reanalysis of all this. We believe we've really lessened the chances of it ever happening again," Karscig said.

The company already has implemented changes in procedures and communications protocols to alert neighboring businesses and the Tacoma Fire Department in an emergency, Karscig said. For security reasons, he declined to disclose the specifics.

Other safety-related equipment upgrades are scheduled for installation this year, Karscig said.

Labor and Industries officials expect to review the changes, said Elaine Fischer, a department spokeswoman.

"We'll have a conversation with them down the road," she said.

The Pioneer Americas plant was acquired last August by Olin Chlor Alkali Products. The facility, which is doing business under both names, produces bleach and repackages chlorine.

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