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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Are Chemical Plants Ready for Y2K?

Air Date: Week of

If a chemical plant is hit by the Y2K problem at midnight on December 31st, toxic chemicals could escape. Host Laura Knoy talks with Jerry Pogy, a member of the federal Chemical Safety Board, who says that large corporations are getting prepared for the new year but he’s worried that many small and medium companies could have problems.


MAN: Hey, what we do here is we neutralize, we have biological treatment. One of our divisions is a biochemical company, actually, where we sell specially-adapted bacteria for the use...

KNOY: Earlier this month, a special US Senate committee went on a fact-finding tour of industrial New Jersey. Under investigation was the so-called Y2K computer problem, and whether it could pose a threat at facilities where toxic chemicals are used or manufactured.

MAN: (Speaking to audience) I apologize for our late start from our earlier- advertised time. Even though Y2K has not struck yet the planes were still late coming out of Washington. (Audience laughs)

KNOY: Following the tour, the committee gathered in the state capitol, Trenton, to discuss the safety of the chemical industry. Among the speakers was Jerry Pogy, a member of the Federal agency that investigates chemical plant accidents. I asked him why these facilities pose a Y2K concern.

POGY: You can imagine that there are industrial facilities in our midst that handle thousands of pounds of toxic chemicals or flammable chemicals. Some of them go through an industrial process where they are heated, where they could be pressurized. And the control of the heating and the pressurization is governed by devices and computerized equipment that is susceptible to the Y2K failure. We could have a failure that leads to a runaway reaction, an over-pressurization that blows out a pressure relief valve, an overheating of a vessel that leads to the elimination of a safety control system, and eventually you could lose containment of that highly-hazardous material, resulting in its release into the surrounding environment.

KNOY: So what type of chemical facilities are we talking about, Dr. Pogy? Are we talking about oil refineries or pesticide factories?

POGY: There actually is a large gamut of such facilities. In fact, we're urging people to understand that chemical handling is a lot more of the chemical sector than chemical processing or manufacturing. In fact, a food storage area that uses large amounts of ammonia refrigeration will have a very toxic chemical, ammonia, in high amounts, at their facility. But we wouldn't generally recognize them as part of the chemical sector.

KNOY: So your concerns are widespread.

POGY: Concerns are enormously widespread. In 1996 the US Environmental Protection Agency, in preparation for a major rulemaking on accident prevention, identified that there are 66,000 facilities in this country that handle sufficient amounts of highly-hazardous chemicals. That they're likely to fall into this regulatory regimen. And within a 5-mile radius around those 66,000 facilities resides 85 million Americans.

KNOY: Nationwide, how do you think plants are doing?

POGY: Our investigation to date in the chemical sector indicates that larger corporate entities by and large have some rigorous programs that they've been employing, and that they've been accounting for the work that they've done to date. But we're fearful that small and mid-size enterprises in particular may have lesser capital resources and fewer technical human resources for addressing these Y2K problems.

KNOY: Has a computer failure ever caused a general failure at a chemical plant before?

POGY: There's one example that's widely quoted in the literature. At the end of the year on December 31, in Tewy, New Zealand, as they transited to the new year, 660 process control units shut down simultaneously on an aluminum smelting operation. That resulted, unfortunately, in a very unsafe situation. It ultimately resulted in over a million pounds New Zealand sterling worth of damage. And ultimately the problem was found out to be that the computer programmers had failed to recognize that the year 1996 had 366 days in the year, because it was a leap year.

KNOY: Is anyone talking, Dr. Pogy, about the possibility that Y2K could cause a situation like the catastrophe in Bhopal, India, where the pesticide plant released a toxic cloud and thousands of people were killed?

POGY: Certainly in the back of all of our minds is the big concern that we avoid any kind of mishap like the terrible tragedy that occurred in Bhopal. Just 2 months ago we began an investigation into an incident with a relatively small facility, had fewer than 30 workers, that had a catastrophic explosion. It killed 4 of the workers within the workplace. Also killed a worker in a business that was nearby, destroyed over 11 buildings, and was felt more than 15 miles away in the surrounding community of Allentown, Pennsylvania. So such events, unfortunately, are occurring even without the Y2K stress added to the system of chemical safety.

KNOY: Jerry Pogy is a member of the US Chemical Safety Board. Dr. Pogy, thanks a lot for talking to us.

POGY: Thank you so much, Laura. It certainly is a pleasure to be here.



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