Chemical plant securityGrowing demand for chemical plants to switch to IST

Published 9 March 2010

A 2008 analysis estimated that seven of Clorox’s bleach plants placed a total of nearly ten million people in the United States at risk from chlorine gas release; Clorox announced last year that it was phasing out processing chlorine gas into sodium hypochlorite in its plants; trouble is, Clorox consumes only about 1 percent of the chlorine gas used each year in the United States, thus, the overall impact of Clorox’s positive move on the country’s risk is minimal

The term “inherently safer technology” (IST) has been in use for a while now, but it moved to the fore last year when the Clorox Company announced plans for a shift to ISTs in the manufacture of the bleach — which carries the company’s name — it produces (“Clorox Announces Plans to Transition U.S. Operations to High-Strength Bleach,” 5 November 2009 HSNW ). Joseph Straw notes that household bleach does not contain pure chlorine, but is instead a solution of sodium hypochlorite, which is manufactured from chlorine. Clorox currently purchases chlorine gas, which is then shipped to its own plants for processing into sodium hypochlorite. Clorox plans to phase out processing over the next three years, and will then buy sodium hypochlorite for shipment to its plants.

Straw writes that sodium hypochlorite is caustic, but it is shipped in concentrated liquid solution. Chlorine is shipped primarily by rail as a compressed gas. “A sodium hypochlorite spill could be contained and mitigated with relative ease compared to a chlorine release, which can be deadly, as illustrated by the 2005 rail accident in Graniteville, South Carolina,” he writes. “The incident killed nine and injured at least 250, spurring both new rail regulations and increased calls for a switch to ISTs.”

While Clorox’s plan does not reduce total chlorine gas production. Company’s spokesman Dan Staublin explains that it will reduce risk by limiting the exposure of chlorine both in transit to and at company plants.

A 2008 analysis by the Center for American Progress (CAP) estimated that seven of Clorox’s bleach plants placed a total of nearly ten million people at risk from chlorine gas release. Clorox’s Staublin notes, however, that his company consumes only about 1 percent of the chlorine gas used each year in the United States. Thus, its overall impact on the country’s risk is minimal.

The move away from hazardous chemicals has been underway for years as evidenced by a 2006 CAP study of the EPA’s Risk Management Planning program, established in 1999. CAP found that the number of facilities subject to the program dropped by 544, at least 284 of which were due to a shift to ISTs. Of those 284, 106 said they switched to shed regulatory requirements, while 117 said they switched because of terrorism and other security concerns. Two-hundred and seventeen indicated that the move was related to traditional safety and the risk of accidental releases.

Straw writes that a bill now before the Senate would require that chemical facilities handling certain chemicals above set volumes assess the feasibility of implementing “methods to reduce the consequences of a terrorist attack” (for earlier legislative efforts, .see “House Panel Votes for Mandating Safer Technology at Chemical Plants,” 24 June 2009 HSNW).

The bill also grants regulators the authority to mandate implementation of ISTs based on those assessments if implementation would not affect the company’s bottom line. That authority would fall to DHS in most cases; in the case of drinking and wastewater treatment operations, it would fall to state regulatory authorities or the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).