News

May 17, 2002

Apologetic managers of two north Claymont industrial facilities involved in recent chemical emissions incidents pledged steps to reduce chances of reoccurrences, but disturbed residents of the area evidenced a good deal of skepticism over whether the problems will soon be eliminated.

"It's certainly not something we wanted to do," David Tusinski, of General Chemical Corp., told a meeting of the Claymont Community Coalition on May 16. He was referring to a release of sulfur trioxide on May 8.

Later in the session, under a barrage of questions and critical comments, Valerie Gray, the plant's environmental manager, admitted, "Our performance has not been up to par."

Tusinski said the release happened because "a shift foreman did not respond and do what he was supposed to do." He indicated that the errant foreman no longer is employed at the plant.

When Gray started to explain the chemical makeup of sulfur trioxide and give details of how it got into the atmosphere in the form of an ominous cloud, several attenders interrupted her saying they were not interested in learning what happened but wanted to be told what was being done to prevent it from happening again.

Tusinski said the company is spending $13 million this year on new equipment and between $10 million and $11 million maintaining existing equipment. He characterized those sums as significant relative to the size of the Claymont plant.

He denied rumors circulating in the Claymont area that outside contractors with inexperienced employees are handling some critical jobs at the plant, saying that all operations are in the hands of trained and qualified union workers. He added that equipment is kept in good order. "Maintenance is there and has always been there," he said.

In response to a question concerning how potentially dangerous the plant might be, Tusinski said that "it would take a complete absolute failure of one of our tanks [to produce] a disaster."

He also said that the company's chief executive officer has visited the plant and ordered improvements in the wake of that incident and process shutdowns which forced the neighboring Sunoco Inc. refinery to burn off acid gas through its flare, forming sulfur dioxide. The refinery normally sells the gas, a byproduct of petroleum refining, to General Chemical.

Later in the coalition meeting, John Blevens, director of the Division of Air & Waste Management, disclosed that Nicholas Di Pasquale, secretary of natural resources & environmental control, is personally involved in discussions with General Chemical's top management concerning the situation and possible enforcement actions.

Declaring that "our reliability depends on General's reliability," Sunoco refinery manager Don Zoladkiewicz said his company is working on developing an alternative for "flaring sulfur dioxide" when the other company is unable to accept delivery of the gas.

"We're not going to hide behind the flare," he said. "It (the alternative) will not be here in three weeks or three months ... [but] we're going to get there."

The meeting did not resolve the basic issue of how to more quickly and effectively inform the public about an incident and provide accurate information about the danger involved.

Arthur Paul, of the Delaware Emergency Management Agency, said a statewide system involving automated telephone calls to people who sign up to receive them is being developed. He claimed that will be capable of getting the word out in a matter of minutes, but George Loss, president of the coalition, said an existing 'telephone tree' arrangement is only minimally effective.

The environmental control department's notification system is not intended to be an emergency-response vehicle, the meeting was told.

Loss and others have called for establishment of a system using a combination of sirens with a distinctive tone and radio broadcasts, but the feasibility and cost of that have not been addressed. One attender said that should be the responsibility of the companies. "They're the ones causing the problems; it should be up to them," he said.

Both companies and Honeywell Inc., which also is part of the petrochemicals complex straddling the Delaware-Pennsylvania border, pledged long-term efforts to maintain rapport with the community. Loss said they have agreed to go beyond responding to crises and to meet at least on a quarterly basis with the coalition.

Zoladkiewicz said the Sunoco refinery will host an 'open house' for the public in September. General Chemical has engaged Sam Waltz & Associates, a public relations firm specializing in public issues concerns.

2002. All rights reserved.

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