Editorial: Safety Above All Else | AIChE

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Editorial: Safety Above All Else


Emily Petruzzelli, Editor-in-Chief

Process safety is a core practice of chemical engineers. As we watched the events unfold in East Palestine, OH, last month, it was a sobering reminder of this core practice. Chemical precursors — like vinyl chloride and butyl acrylate — though commonly used in the production of plastics, paints, and other products, are hazardous. The safe conveyance and handling of these chemicals depends on a series of safety checks, management practices, and government regulations.

The train derailment that occurred in East Palestine, OH, on Feb. 3 is thought to have been caused by mechanical failure on a railcar. Upon the derailment of 38 train cars, a fire erupted, covering the town of approximately 4,700 residents in a dense plume of dark smoke. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), around 20 cars were reported to have been carrying hazardous materials, including vinyl chloride, which is highly flammable and can decompose to hydrogen chloride when burned. Concerns over a potential explosion of the derailed cars led authorities to carry out a controlled release of vinyl chloride from five tankers on Feb. 6.

Although residents were told that they could safely return home two days later, questions remain regarding lingering contaminants from the plume. The chemical release affected nearby waterways, killing an estimated 3,500 fish (as of Feb. 16), according to the Ohio Dept. of Natural Resources. With a chemical release of this magnitude, threats can persist long after the immediate emergency has ended — and long after media attention wanes.

Past industrial disasters have shown the importance of keeping chemical storage and processing facilities well away from residential areas. The article on pp. 52–57, “Site Selection and Buffer Zone Maintenance,” is timely in that it discusses the importance of maintaining additional space (i.e., a buffer zone) around hazardous operations to limit community impact in the case of an incident or environmental release. The article offers some solid best practices for companies looking to implement stricter policies regarding buffer zone management. The authors, Karen Study and John Currie (The Dow Chemical Co.), discuss how important it is for chemical companies to aggressively advocate for such a division between communities and hazardous operations. They write, “it is critical that companies in the chemical process industries partner with local governments and regulators to ensure that buffer zones are not compromised due to local development and/or lack of regulation.”

Although the article primarily discusses land management around permanent structures and facilities, and does not cover concerns regarding the transport of chemicals, a key takeaway for any industry is that maintaining safe practices often comes at a financial cost. More importantly, however, companies in the chemical process industries should (and typically do) strive to go above and beyond safety mandates — because the cost of a catastrophic incident is always far greater.

Emily Petruzzelli, Editor-in-Chief


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