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February 7, 2011
Volume 89, Number 6
p. 9

Exploring Safer Processes

Plant Security: National Research Council will examine alternative chemical manufacturing techniques

Jeffrey W. Johnson

An NRC panel will examine the potential use of inherently safer chemical manufacturing methods at chemical plants. Shutterstock
An NRC panel will examine the potential use of inherently safer chemical manufacturing methods at chemical plants.
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The National Research Council (NRC) will soon begin exploring the application of inherently safer design for chemical manufacturing processes, a study requested and funded by Congress last year. The first public meeting takes place on Feb. 9 in Washington, D.C., with a report due in September.

Inherently safer chemical manufacturing is an approach to minimize use and storage of toxic, flammable, or explosive chemicals through substitution, process modifications, and other techniques. The end result is to eliminate or at least minimize the impact of an accident if one occurs.

The use of inherently safer design has been controversial—with some plant engineers saying it is difficult to apply and others saying it should be mandatory. NRC’s case study will look at an actual plant—the Bayer CropScience pesticide manufacturing facility in Institute, W.Va.—explains Dorothy Zolandz, director of the NRC panel that is conducting the study.

Congress earmarked some $600,000 for the study after an accident at the Bayer facility in August 2008 killed two workers and came close to blasting debris into an aboveground tank storing some 13,000 lb of methyl isocyanate (MIC). The chemical was released after the 1984 Bhopal, India, plant explosion and killed and injured thousands of people.

Since Bhopal, residents living near the Bayer plant have urged the company to phase out MIC. The plant is the only U.S. facility, and the only Bayer plant worldwide, that uses MIC in production. Two weeks ago, a few days before the Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) released its report on the 2008 accident, Bayer said it would phase out MIC over the next 18 months (C&EN, Jan. 24, page 7).

Still, NRC will move ahead with its study and has selected 10 panel members with backgrounds in chemical engineering, dispute resolution, occupational and environmental health, economics, and risk assessment. “Our study will examine more than pipes and engineering,” Zolandz explains. “It will look at the bigger picture—feasibility, cost-benefit implications, and community concerns,” she says, while illuminating the use of inherently safer process assessments.

“Here we have an actual on-the-ground plant that we can use to enlighten us about how these assessments are carried out, what their capabilities and limitations are, and so forth,” Zolandz explains. “We have a real case study.”

This is not a subject that “goes away” for CSB just because Bayer’s MIC use has ended, notes Daniel Horowitz, CSB’s managing director of congressional, public, and board affairs.

“Our interest has always been how inherently safer designs can benefit industry as they strive to make processes safer,” Horowitz says. “We are hoping for advice from [NRC] on how we as an agency should look at these inherently safer technological issues in our accident investigations.”

Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2011 American Chemical Society
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