--> Gill Blog: The Safety of Chemical Plants

Gill Blog

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

The Safety of Chemical Plants

In Washington today Richard Falkenrath will deliver a written statement to Congress discussing the Bush administration's policy on chemical plant security. At issue is the government's policy to count on chemical plants to voluntarily beef up their own security. Given the risks and vulnerability, this policy may have to be rethought:
The government estimates that there are more than 15,000 chemical facilities nationwide, including more than 100 in heavily populated areas. Such plants can store enough deadly chemicals to kill or injure hundreds of thousands of people.

The article cites a recent example of a rail car crash in remote Graniteville, S.C., that killed 10 people after 60 tons of chlorine was released. Of course the scope of the devastation can be much wider - one need not look any further than the Bhopal disaster of 1984 when forty metric tons of methyl isocyanate (MIC) from a Union Carbide pesticide plant were accidently released into the atmoshpere in the middle of a heavily populated Indian city.

As officials in Washington weigh the merits of Falkenrath's statement, emergency managers in Cobourg, Ontario, a small hamlet located one hour east of Toronto, can pat themselves on the back today for executing a well-coordinated emergency response plan, after responding to a massive inferno at a local plastics factory. The fallout from the wake of the fire remains to be seen, yet the way local authorities responded needs to be applauded, as it validates the the need of putting together a multi-tiered response plan that seemlessly coordinates the response across a wide number of responders. Although the Cobourg fire department has only fifteen fire fighters, the plan created seemless communication channels to external first responders who would immediately be mobilized to the scene. In fact, over 100 fire fighters were on the scene within short order to help bring the blaze under control.
Due to the magnitude of the fire at Horizon Plastics, crews from surrounding fire departments were summoned to help, including crews from Peterborough, Smith-Ennismore-Lakefield Township and Otonabee-South Monaghan Township. Chief Gord Jopling of Smith-Ennismore-Lakefield sent a pumper truck with three firefighters. Chief Ted Bryan of Otonabee-South-Monaghan dispatched four firefighters and a pumper truck.

As officials in Washington try and make heads or tails out of how to best respond to a potential crisis, they may be well served taking some small town tips from their neighbor to the north.