After Bennett tours chemical plant, DEP, activists differ on Y2K responsibility : LUSENET : TimeBomb 2000 (Y2000) : One Thread

Trenton Times May 11 1999 <:)=

TRENTON -- Is it the government's job to police the Y2K compliance of private-sector businesses?

The answer depends upon who you ask. At yesterday's hearing on the chemical industry's exposure to year 2000 technology failures, environmental activists said state regulators should be independently verifying manufacturers' claims of readiness.

The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection said no such special effort is needed, as Y2K is covered by existing regulations that require manufacturers to operate their plants safely.

Jane Nogaki, a board member of the New Jersey Work Environment Council and New Jersey Environmental Federation, said that isn't enough.

"It appears the DEP, the agency charged with preventing toxic disasters, has put its head in the sand when faced with the challenge posed by the millennium bug," said Nogaki.

DEP Commissioner Robert Shinn said the state has already put manufacturers on notice that they must operate safely past Jan. 1 and cited the industry's "affirmative responsibility" to fix any computer date-recognition problems.

"The Y2K dilemma presents a unique sort of uncertainty about the safe operation of industrial facilities . . . but it does not undermine the effectiveness of the state's regulatory framework," said Shinn.

The State House hearing was part of a Trenton-area fact-finding tour by Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah, co-chairman of the Senate committee on the year 2000, examining whether technology failures at factories could trigger potentially lethal releases of hazardous material.

After a tour of Sybron Chemical's plant in Burlington County, Bennett chaired the State House hearing, titled "Will Y2K and Chemicals Be a Volatile Mix?"

CHEMICAL company executives assured Bennett that their industry would be ready and the chances of a catastrophic accident were small.

"The good news is that the chemical industry as a whole is used to handling hazardous materials," said Bennett. "The bad news is that we don't have enough information (about Y2K compliance)."

Chemical companies use date-sensitive microprocessors in automation systems that control the flow of chemicals throughout their facilities. Many of these "embedded systems" use a two-digit date storage format that may fail to recognize "00" as the year 2000.

Bennett was impressed with Sybron's effort to prepare for Y2K, especially its systems to notify local residents in the event of a hazard. But he expected no less.

"The concern is always that the only companies who'll let you in are those that are in good shape," said Bennett. "We're more worried about the ones that don't invite us in."

Nogaki said public safety concerns should prompt DEP to conduct a survey of New Jersey chemical makers' Y2K readiness and then perform audits of firms that don't respond.

"There's a public need to know there's a verification process," said Nogaki. "We believe DEP should be an enforcing, verifying agency. I think it's government's responsibility to provide the verification. DEP should be able, in a limited number of cases, to perform audits."

The DEP has taken no extraordinary steps to investigate Y2K compliance by manufacturers, and has no plans to do so.

"Y2K falls within the regulatory framework these companies operate under," said DEP spokesman Peter Page. "The burden is not with the DEP to be sure they fix their computers. The burden remains on the regulated entity to operate safely."

Shinn said DEP is "working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to promote Y2K readiness at regulated facilities." The EPA has circulated informational brochures on Y2K safety issues, and sought to encourage testing for date-recognition problems by waiving fines for any accidental releases that occur during Y2K testing.

Bennett, for one, says concerned companies and members of the public need to do their own homework about Y2K readiness and risk.

"I say to everybody, `don't depend on the Senate committee to solve your problems,' " said Bennett. "The government cannot go into every business and conduct an audit of their Y2K compliance. But whenever there is a health and safety issue and an enforcement agency is in place, they should use them."

-- Sysman (, May 11, 1999


Also, here's what Senator Bennett has to say... <:)=

Good morning and welcome to our hearing on the impact of the Year 2000 technology problem on the chemical industry. I am pleased to be holding this hearing here in New Jersey, not only because of the importance of this industry to your state, but also because it is nice to go outside of Washington DC to meet the people on the front lines of the battle against the Y2K computer problem.

I have just come from a tour of Sybron Chemicals in Birmingham and was impressed with the level of automation in this plant, which I understand is typical of other plants in the industry. While this automation enables safe and efficient operation of the plant, it also increases susceptibility to Y2K anomalies. I can only hope that the other tens of thousands of chemical producers and users in America are doing as well as Sybron in addressing this insidious problem.

We have an excellent group of witnesses here today who have taken time out of their busy schedules to help us shed light on the Y2K problem in the chemical industry. Before we begin, let me talk briefly about the importance of the chemical industry.

The crude oil refining industry keeps American transportation running. Our health -- and sometimes our lives -- are dependent on pharmaceuticals produced by the chemical industries. And, the manufacture of virtually every consumer product is in some way dependent on vital chemical ingredients. Chemical products are present in everything from shampoo to floor polish.

On the economic side, the $392 billion chemical industry is the largest in the manufacturing sector and employs over one million workers. It is also our largest exporter accounting for $69.5 billion or 10% of the total exports in 1997, easily outdistancing the second leading industryagricultureand generating a trade surplus on average of more than $16 billion annually over the last ten years.

The chemical industry has set high standards for safety, and has a very proactive program to preserve this record and to continuously improve on health, safety, and environmental performance. This industry is one that is already accustomed to dealing with risks, and I am hopeful that we won't see any Y2K-related problems. Nevertheless, the chemical industry warrants our attention because accidents can have such devastating effects. Even though it happened over 15 years ago in another country, most of us remember the Bhopal accident that killed several thousand people and injured tens of thousands of others. We have never seen a chemical release of that size in the United States, but the potential for harm is great. An estimated 85 million Americans  more than 30 percent of the U.S. population -- live within 5 miles of one of the 66,000 sites that handle hazardous chemicals. That's why any potential Y2K problems at chemical facilities cannot be taken lightly.

In addition to safe "on-site" operations, chemical processing plants must prepare to deal with external services which may be Y2K vulnerable. Let me give you an example. On November 24, 1998, a power outage caused the shutdown of an Anacortes, Washington refinery. As the refinery was returning to operation after a cool-down period, an accident occurred that took the lives of six workers. The power outage may not have directly caused the accident, but it brought about the circumstances that put six men in danger, and ultimately cost them their lives. This example highlights the startup and shutdown risks in chemical plants, just like airline accidents, that are more likely during takeoffs and landings. This industry must be ready for any sudden Y2K-induced shutdowns.

In this industry, with the many harmful and toxic substances that are involved in chemical processes, there is very often little room for error, and the potential for a Y2K impact must be determined and planned for. Our Committee has been very concerned about the Y2K impact on numerous government agencies and private sector organizations. However, potential Y2K failures in the chemical industry and their resulting public health risks are worthy of the Committee's thorough scrutiny. That's why we're here today to address the question, "Will Y2K and chemicals be a volatile mix?"

-- Sysman (, May 11, 1999.

"We're more worried about the ones that don't invite us in."

So are we.


See thread ...

Bennett on Y2K and Chemical Plants 000oXd

See also thread ...

Y2K concerns over chemical plants 000oQu

-- Diane J. Squire (, May 11, 1999.

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