Chemical wild card : LUSENET : TimeBomb 2000 (Y2000) : One Thread


November 8,1999

Chemical wild card

Nobody knows whether the Y2K bug is hiding in facilities that make, store, distribute, use and discard hazardous materials

Monday, November 8, 1999

Better living through chemistry? Absolutely -- or at least until the Year 2000 computer problem bubbles up out of the test tube on Jan 1.

Consider the hidden chemical infrastructure of modern living in metropolitan Portland:

Cold milk? Fred Meyer stores up to 25,000 pounds of ammonia, a corrosive liquified gas, to refrigerate its Portland dairy.

White paper? Boise Cascade keeps as much as 720,000 pounds of chlorine, a corrosive gas, to bleach pulp at its St. Helen's pulp-and-paper mill.

Cheap computers? SEH America Inc. stores up to 46,000 pounds of hydrogen chloride, a corrosive liquified gas, to make the wafers that become computer chips.

Comfortable chairs? Hickory Springs of California relies on 10,000 pounds of toluene diisocyanate, a carcinogen, to make polyurethane foam for furniture, bedding and carpet backing.

Government and industry know a lot about these and hundreds of other hazardous chemicals. What they don't know -- and, in fact, what literally no one knows -- is how many of the facilities that make, store, distribute, use and discard these chemicals are immunized against the Year 2000 computer bug. The International Association of Fire Fighters, for one, calls hazardous materials the real wild card of Y2K.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued an alert in August, warning companies that Y2K problems could lead to the accidental release of hazardous chemicals and other pollutants into the air, water and soil.

Y2K issues could place workers, communities and the environment at risk, the EPA said.

How can a computer problem wreak havoc with chemicals? The so-called millennium bug, in which computers may mistake the year 2000 for 1900, is hard-wired into a small, but significant, percentage of computerized equipment used by chemical handlers. Confused by the date, errant chips could trigger failures in process controllers, air monitors, security systems, laboratory instruments, safety-shutdown equipment and explosion-suppression systems, among others.

The problem is that no one -- not the government, the public or even the industries themselves -- knows for sure how many companies are vulnerable to Y2K problems.

Moreover, several recent studies zero in on what they say is the greatest vulnerability: small and medium-sized businesses whose owners don't understand -- or don't believe -- the implications of Y2K for their operations. "It's a bunch of hype," grumbled the operator of a small Portland company that makes cleaning and sanitation supplies. Of his own business, he said: "It's all under control."

In contrast, a small chemical manufacturer in Tualatin has installed new Y2K-compliant equipment with manual overrides in case of computer or power failure. Noting that one of the company's PCs crashed when its date was rolled forward to 2000, the president says of his doubting industry peers: "They may be in for a surprise."

Like several small-business operators contacted by The Oregonian, neither was willing to talk about his company's Y2K readiness for the record.

Some small businesses don't even have computers. "We have a fax machine," offered Joanne Corrigan, secretary at Cool-Amp Conducto-Lube Co., a Lake Oswego maker of lubricants for the electric power industry. Corrigan tracks customers with index cards and typewriter; the two owners mix silver-based lubricants by hand.

At the other extreme are large, investor-owned companies such as Elf Atochem North America Inc., which zaps table salt and water into a surprising variety of chemicals at its Northwest Front Avenue plant. Elf Atochem's Y2K team combed through the plant, using a matrix system to identify and replace all embedded chips that had date functions.

Plant manager Gene Spina said plant operators have tested all computer systems twice, rolling computer clocks forward in April and August without incident. A third test, for peace of mind, is scheduled for later this month, he said. On New Year's Eve, the Elf Atochem plant, which normally operates continuously, will reduce risk by putting all but two manufacturing processes on standby. Under the watchful eyes of half a dozen plant experts, the two remaining processes -- sodium chlorate and chlor-alkali production -- will continue percolating into the new year.

Spina said shutting down and restarting those processes is more dangerous than operating them continuously. Elf also will have emergency generators and an oil-fired boiler on standby, in the unlikely event Portland General Electric and NW Natural experience problems delivering electricity and natural gas for power.

Publicly held companies like Paris-based Elf Atochem, report their Y2K readiness quarterly to the federal Securities and Exchange Commission. But the majority of Oregon's chemical handlers are private businesses, and that makes the task of assessing the industry's overall readiness daunting.

In the Portland area alone, the federal Environmental Protection Agency regulates more than 3,000 facilities that emit pollution or handle hazardous waste, according to an analysis of EPA records. The Oregon Fire Marshal's office tracks about 15,000 facilities statewide that store reportable quantities of hazardous substances, such as the 125 or so businesses in the Portland area, for instance, that keep large quantities of gaseous and liquid ammonia on hand. Both the EPA and the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, which are the primary regulators of chemical handlers in Oregon, long ago opted out of the role of Y2K enforcer.

Blame the lawyers. In DEQ's case, the agency first considered asking companies to swear they were compliant -- an action that is legally meaningless, the state attorney generals office pointed out. Next, the agency considered collecting companies written Y2K plans -- an action that implied DEQ would issue rulings on whether the companies were compliant or not. But the very folks who had the expertise to read the plans -- DEQ's information technology staff -- were up to their necks solving the agency's own internal Y2K problems.

Finally, DEQ fell back to the same position taken by the EPA -- that of Y2K cheerleader. Mitch West, the manager who oversees DEQ's internal Y2K program, said the state agency sent information letters to all 40,000 to 50,000 permittees in the state, spelling out the known Y2K risks and suggesting danger spots where the bug could be hiding.

You wouldn't think a registered (underground storage) tank would be a problem, West said, but leak-detection systems in underground tanks have a lot of calendar functions. The Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Division weighed in with its own information campaign, publishing three Y2K articles for employers in its quarterly publication, The Resource.

But the worker safety agency has no specific enforcement powers over Y2K readiness, said Chris Ottoson, health analyst in Oregon OSHA's enforcement policy section.

In the absence of hard information from government sources, several industry studies hint at the chemical industry's Y2K status. A coalition of seven chemical industry groups found that 98 percent of small and medium-sized businesses planned to be Y2K-ready by Sept. 30, with 100 percent ready by year-end. But the survey, conducted at the beginning of this year, was based on only 400 responses returned voluntarily out of a mailing of 5,500.

Another survey, conducted between July and September by Texas A&M University, found 99 percent awareness of Y2K among small- and medium-sized businesses, but only 61 percent were completely ready. An additional 30.5 percent were 80 percent to 99 percent ready, with the remaining 8 percent less than three-quarters ready. The telephone survey was limited to 1,400 companies in New Jersey, California, Kansas and Texas.

In the Portland area, several small and medium-sized chemical handlers said in interviews that they were ready to face 2000.

Tarr Inc., which makes oxygenated chemicals, lubricating oils and greases in North Portland, has installed a new server, software and plant equipment. The company also upgraded its cardlock fuel system, which otherwise would have failed on Jan. 1. "We've ended up spending a lot of money for a situation we think should have never occurred," said Greg Allen, Tarr's general manager.

Chemical Distributors Inc., which operates warehouses in Portland and Seattle, finished its Y2K work in mid-1999. The company, which distributes nontoxic pigments and other chemicals for coatings manufacturers, was prodded by many of its 300 to 400 customers.

President Donald J. Cruickshank says now that the company would have run into computer trouble if it hadn't made the Y2K fixes. He admits still worrying a tiny bit about whether the railroads will be able to deliver his inventory.

"My feeling is that this is going to be a non-event," Cruickshank said. "But you never know."

-- Homer Beanfang (, November 09, 1999


A couple of months ago, I found a site which showed all the hazardous material locations by zip code. Of course, I don't know where it is anymore. Does this seem familiar to anyone?

-- Dog Gone (, November 09, 1999.

This article coming out of our neck of the woods at the mo.

Yep, there will be hazmat accidents, toxic fume plumes, uncontrollable fires, sewage backup, explosions, and spectacular catastrophes due to Y2K failures.

If you like to breathe, here's what you can do to help protect yourself:

Shelter In Place: Make Your Kits

Shelter In Place

aka SIP

[ Courtesy of ECHO Caer Group, Emergency Communications for Hazardous Operations, taught through the Portland, Oregon Fire Dept Training Center ]

[ For Educational Purposes ]

"There may be a time when an emergency takes place in your community due to an airborne toxic chemical release. The outside air quality may be affected to the point that it is not safe to be outside or evacuate. In a case like this it is usually safer to shelter-in-place until wind disperses and moves the toxic chemical away.


Many, but not all, facilities (chemical/industrial plants) and emergency vehicles have alarm, siren, horn, or similar notification devices or systems. A three to five minute continuous signal means:

"Turn on TV or radio. Listen for essential emergency information."

These various signal devices may use different tones. The key is that they will be continuously activated for three to five minutes. If you hear this signal go inside immediately and turn on your radio or TV.

For Airborne toxic chemical releases the safest immediate action is to shelter-inplace while listening for further instructions.


1. Move inside immediately and turn on radio or TV for emergency information.
Proceed right away to:

2. Close all windows and doors.

3. Turn off ventilation systems. Remember heating, cooling, air pumps, bathroom fans, kitchen fans, oven/stove ventilation fans, dryer exhaust, chemney/fireplace vents, etc.

4. In buildings, go into and seal a room if possible.

5. Continue to listen to radio or TV for further instructions.


Go inside the nearest structure such as a home, school, store, public building. Bring pets inside if practical. If indoors already, stay there. Turn on radio or TV for emergency information. If you are in a vehicle, close all windows, manual vents and ventilation systems.

In a structure:
Shut all windows, doors, chimney or fire place vents. This includes everything that can quickly and easily be closed to prevent the chemical from entering.

Turn off forced air heating or cooling systems. Turn of stove and bathroom exhaust fans.

Go into a room, preferably with no, or few, windows or outside air vents. If possible seal doors, windows, vents, etc. with plastic and tape or wet rags.

Continue to listen to the radio or TV on a local emergency alert system station until the emergency is over or until you are given instruction to evacuate. (Use a battery powered radio if the power is off.)


It is important that you have a plan for your home or business for sheltering-in-place. Some key steps in this plan are:

* Knowing what doors and windows are likely to be open and assigning some one to check and close and LOCK them. Locking seals better.

* Knowing where the manual vents are and how to close them.

* Knowing where forced air heating or cooling controls/power exhaust vents are and how to turn them off.

* Knowing what room you will go to and how to seal it. Have a kit pre-prepared for this consisting of things such as plastic sheeting, strong tape, duct tape, rags, towels, water, snacks, etc.
Pre-cut the plastic to completely seal all windows and doors and any vents in your designated shelter room. With easy-to-see large labels, clearly mark on the plastic which opening/window/door/vent it fits.

* Have a radio (preferably two). Have one electric and one battery operated radio in the room you've identified. Know the emergency alert system station(s) for your area and have the station numbers written on a piece of tape attached to the radio.


Most chemical release incidents are short-term in nature. But for any potential emergency situation, always keep an adequate supply of contained food and water sources, flashlights, first aid kit, batteries, a portable radio, essential medicines and other essentials. Practice safety drills to be prepared and know the emergency plans for your workplace and schools.


When a release or spill is identified, some chemical plants dispatch trained emergency responders to quickly assess the situation and plan an approrpiate response. If offsite impacts are possible, local response agencies (Emergency Management Agency, Fire Department, etc) are contacted and consulted with. The local response agencies will then decide what actions, if any, are necessary to protect the surrounding community.

[ Note: these instructions were not written with Y2K in mind, when communications may be overwhelmed or out and emergency responders completely overwhelmed. ]

Sheltering inside a building is considered to be a proven method of protecting yourself and your family in the event of an accidental release.


* Close all doors to the outside and close and lock all windows (windows sometimes seal better when locked);

* Turn off ventilation systems;

* Monitor the local Emergency Alert System (EAS) radio station for updates and remain in shelter until authorities indicate it is safe to come out.

Select a room in the building where occupants can be the most comfortable and which is easy to seal off. This room should, if possible, provide access to water, toilet facilities, and adequate room for people to sit or lie down. The room should have a battery-powered radio, snack foods, and bottled water.

Many people opt for the master bedroom area with bathroom.

If the gas or vapor is soluble or even partially soluble in water -- hold a wet cloth or handkerchief over your nose and mouth if the gases start to bother you. For a higher degree of protection, go into the bathroom, close the door, and turn on the shower in a strong spray to "wash" the air. Seal any openings to the outside of the bathroom as best as you can. Don't worry about running out of air to breathe. That is highly unlikely in normal homes and buildings.

Be sure to make Shelter-In-Place kits, with pre-cut, marked heavy plastic and strong tape to seal your closed doors, windows, vents, exhaust systems -- anywhere anything from outside could get in. Keep your kit accessible in the designated room. Make sure all members of the family know what the kit is for, how to use it, and why. Drill and practice Sheltering-In-Place.

-- Ashton & Leska in Cascadia (, November 09, 1999.

Dog Gone Is this what you are looking for?

  Welcome to the ChemicalGuide [Responsible Care in your Community]

You can locate chemical facilities throughout the United States and learn more about them:

Where they are located
What they produce
Their involvement within your community
The important work taking place to make better, safer plant communities.

Link from the Chemical Manufacturers Association

-- Brian (, November 09, 1999.

No,Brian, that one wasn't it, although that's a good one. It looks like it is just starting up though. I found another one that still isn't the one I remember, but which has similar information. This is an EPA link.

Link< /a>

-- Dog Gone (, November 09, 1999.

Try this thread for Links:

Explosion in Bellingham, Wash

That thread chock-full of awesome Links ...

-- Ashton & Leska in Cascadia (, November 09, 1999.

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