The explosive effect of accidents in the chemical industry

Chain reaction

29 March 2010 00:00  [Source: ICB]

Accidents in the chemical industry can have a devastating impact - and lead to changes in legislation

IT TAKES a matter of seconds to sully the reputation of the chemical sector. Despite producers boasting an enviable safety record compared with most other major industries, a solitary accident can send shockwaves around the globe and have major repercussions that linger for years to come.

The very nature of the chemicals handled or produced at these sites means that every incident can be potentially fatal. As a result, rules and regulations regarding their handling and storage are constantly reviewed.

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A quick search on our sister service, ICIS news, throws up dozens of deaths and injuries following explosions at chemical facilities since the start of the year. Numerous incidents have been reported in India, China, Malaysia, Slovakia, Japan and the US to name but a few. Their legacy, like those before them, is that lessons will be learned, and new processes and procedures put into place to hopefully prevent a recurrence.

Michalis Christou heads the Major Accident Hazards Bureau (MAHB) at the European Commission and says that 10 accidents in particular have shaped the chemical industry and legislation over the past few decades.

The 1966 Feyzin explosion in France, Flixborough in the UK in 1974, and the Seveso incident in Italy two years later (see timeline below) were all landmark accidents that led to the introduction of some of the chemical sector's most stringent safety legislation, says Christou. The Seveso Directive - so-called because of the 1976 disaster - came into force in 1982 as a yardstick to prevent similar accidents.

The regulations were amended several times in the years after the San Juanico LPG disaster in Mexico City and the gas leak in Bhopal, India - in November and December, 1984, respectively. Bhopal is widely regarded as the most devastating chemical disaster of all time and to this day, thousands of residents are still suffering from ill health as a result.

"Bhopal was by far the worst accident if you consider its severity and the impact it had on the chemical industry. Just look at the number of victims - the death toll and the huge number of injuries - as well as awareness to the public," he says.

The pollution of the Rhine following the Schweisehalle, Switzerland, incident in 1986 emphasised the need to tighten the existing legislation further, adds Christou.

"After these accidents, there was an important impact on the legislation and safety initiatives in the industry," he says. "Taking these events into consideration, the environmental consequences of accidents were included in the directive for the first time."

"It was after Bhopal that the industry established the Responsible Care program, and the authorities developed the Risk Management Program rule in the US and the Seveso II directive in Europe [in 1996]. It was the initial reason for including land-use planning requirements, which is now an important obligation of the Directive.

"It was also perhaps the most damaging accident to the image of the chemical industry. Usually people are worried about pollution and the long-term effects of the industry, not the threat to life."

The legislation was again amended in 2003, to take three more accidents into consideration, he says.

The Baia Mare cyanide spill on January 30, 2000 in Romania, resulted in the river Danube becoming polluted. Waste from gold mining ran into the river all the way to the Black Sea and affected drinking water.

At the time, the Enschede fireworks disaster, in the Netherlands in May 2000 was the biggest accident seen in Europe in decades. The fireworks factory was based in the middle of the town. It killed more than 20 and injured over 300 people.

Worst of all, however, in terms of fatalities and damage was the Grande Paroisse fertilizer plant explosion in Toulouse, France, in September 2001.

These events resulted in the introduction of far stricter rules on storage and handling, and revisiting the guidelines for land-use planning. "After Bhopal it became clear that there was a very high risk when residential areas are located close to chemical facilities. Article 12 of the Seveso Directive now concentrates on land use planning," he says. "The problem with accidents like Toulouse was that when the plant was built in the 1920s it was in the open fields far away from the city. By 2001 when the accident happened, it was surrounded by houses as the city had expanded so much," says Christou.

Finally, the 2005 disaster at the Texas City refinery in Texas, US - considered the nation's worst industrial disaster in 15 years - emphasized the need to enforce safety culture in the industry, and increase risk management and the use of performance indicators.

Almost 15 years since it was first introduced, Seveso II is now being reviewed, says Christou. "Many things have been learned in that time," he says. "The intention is to achieve a high level of protection, but at the same time not to impose additional burden to the industry. We hope that the proposal will be ready by the end of the year or early 2011."

An online database is already being used by both the EU and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) member countries to report industrial accidents and exchange information on lessons learned from the accidents, to avoid recurrence in the future.

A new system is also being developed by the MAHB, which will be used to collate accident scenarios and risk assessment data to support land use planning decisions. The first version of the system is expected to be completed later this year.


FEYZIN, FRANCE - January 4, 1966
Operators carrying out maintenance on a propane storage sphere at a refinery in Feyzin, France, in 1966 were unable to stop an explosion that killed 18 and injured 81 others. Incorrectly opened valves and a resulting blockage led to a propane leak that ignited, leading to one of the worst accidents involving LPG.

FLIXBOROUGH, UK - June 1, 1974
Cyclohexane vapor emitted from the Nypro (UK) site at Flixborough sparked an explosion that killed 28 people and injured another 36. Around 50 more people were injured off-site. The disaster led to the Health and Safety at Work Act, introduced the same year, when the Health and Safety Executive was also established.  

SEVESO, ITALY - July 10, 1976
The namesake of some of the chemical sector's most stringent legislation, the Seveso accident in July 1976 followed the overheating of a reactor at the ICMESA chemical plant. A toxic cloud of 2,4,5-Trichlorophenol - used to make pesticides and antiseptics - spread over the city. This became the catalyst for the Seveso Directive, in 1982, which has since undergone numerous amendments.

SAN JUANICO, MEXICO - November 19, 1984
A series of explosions at an LPG terminal in San Juanico, near Mexico City, left more than 500 dead in 1984 and as many as 7,000 wounded. The incident at the PEMEX-owned site started after LPG leaked from a ruptured pipe. The resulting gas cloud ignited, starting numerous fires.

BHOPAL, INDIA - December 3, 1984
Dubbed the worst chemical accident of all time, the gas leak at US-based Union Carbide's pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, killed 2,000 people immediately with another 8,000 dying after. Methyl isocyanate gas leaked from the facility during the early hours of the morning while local residents slept. In 2001, Union Carbide became a subsidiary of US giant Dow Chemical.

While extinguishing a fire at the Sandoz chemical plant in November 1986, around 30 tonnes of pesticides are believed to have been washed into the river Rhine and flowed to the North Sea. The spill is said to have killed around 500,000 fish and emphasized the importance of introducing new legislation.

BAIA MARE, ROMANIA - January 30, 2000
The Baia Mare cyanide spill in Romania, at the end of January, 2000 was dubbed one of the worst environmental disasters in Europe. Some 100,000m3 of waste chemicals used by a gold mining company entered the Somes river and eventually found their way into the Danube, polluting the waters and killing huge numbers of fish and wildlife.

A warm summer day in the Netherlands was marred by a major explosion at a fireworks factory in Enschede in May, 2000. The detonation was reportedly felt some 30km (19 miles) away, leaving a swathe of destruction. Around 1,000 people were injured, while 22 were killed.

TOULOUSE, FRANCE - September 21, 2001
On the morning of 21 September 2001, a shed containing ammonium nitrate (AN) exploded at Atofina's Grande Paroisse fertilizer plant in Toulouse, France, creating a huge crater 50m (164 feet) wide and 10m deep. The detonation of around 300 tonnes of AN left 31 dead, thousands injured, and 27,000 buildings damaged in the surrounding area.

TEXAS CITY, TEXAS, US - March 23, 2005
The 2005 disaster at UK oil major BP's Texas City refinery, in Texas, US, was considered the nation's worst industrial disaster in 15 years. A series of explosions occurred when a hydrocarbon isomerization unit was restarted and a distillation tower flooded with hydrocarbons. As a result, 15 were killed and another 180 were injured.

 For more on chemical accidents

By: Andy Brice
+44 20 8652 3214

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