Ethylene Oxide Poses Explosion Risks in Lake County 

[Joey Banks/Unsplash photo]
By Dr. Dylan Burdette, PhD

Residents of Waukegan have heard quite a bit lately about the frightening health and cancer risks of ethylene oxide (EtO). However, they have heard very little about the explosion hazards of EtO. We would be naive to ignore these very real hazards and the risks they pose for our community—especially since Waukegan was literally shaken by a major explosion of another type of chemical facility, the AB Specialty Silicones factory, on May 3, 2019.

EtO explosions are lethal

In addition to its many industrial uses, EtO and, in some cases, propylene oxide (PO) are the main components in thermobaric and fuel air explosive (FAE) weapons used by the US military. These are among the most powerful nonnuclear weapons in our country’s arsenal. Thermobaric weapons are two-phase explosives: They first create an aerosol cloud of flammable material and then ignite it, similar to a gas leak or a coal mine explosion.. They can wound or kill via multiple mechanisms—the blast wave, exposure to burning fuel, or exposure to the residual fuel cloud.

EtO is a preferred fuel for these weapons as it has a shock wave effectiveness of 5:1 compared to dynamite,[1] according to Explosives by Rudolf Meyer et al. In other words, to duplicate the shock wave of 5 pounds of dynamite, you need just 1 pound of EtO.

Thermobaric weapons fueled by EtO react at a very high temperature and cause a self-sustaining flame, setting fire to all structures in the immediate blast radius. The decomposition reaction resulting from the primary explosion moves at nearly 4,500 miles per hour,[1] burning as it goes.

“Those near the ignition point are obliterated. Those at the fringe of explosion are likely to suffer many internal, and thus invisible injuries, including burst eardrums and crushed inner ear organs, severe concussions, ruptured lungs and internal organs, and possibly blindness,”[2] according to a 1990 CIA study.

In a 1993 document, the Defense Intelligence Agency speculated that because the “shock and pressure waves cause minimal damage to brain tissue … it is possible that victims of FAEs are not rendered unconscious by the blast, but instead suffer for several seconds or minutes while they suffocate.”[2]

“The [blast] kill mechanism against living targets is unique—and unpleasant,” according to a separate 1993 Defense Intelligence Agency document. “… What kills is the pressure wave, and more importantly, the subsequent rarefaction [vacuum], which ruptures the lungs. … If the fuel deflagrates but does not detonate, victims will be severely burned and will probably also inhale the burning fuel. Since the most common FAE fuels, ethylene oxide and propylene oxide, are highly toxic, undetonated FAE should prove as lethal to personnel caught within the cloud as most chemical agents.”[2]

EtO explosions in Waukegan? 

Why are the effects of EtO-fueled weapons relevant to residents of Waukegan? Because, according to the risk management plan (RMP 3-2172) it submitted on May 29, 2019, to the Illinois EPA, the Vantage Specialty Chemicals plant in Gurnee has 700 tons of EtO stock on hand, and 205 tons of propylene oxide.  This is enough to generate a shock wave equivalent to a 4.5-kiloton TNT explosive.

At the Medline Industries plant in Waukegan, the estimated on-site EtO stock would generate a shockwave equivalent to an 80-ton TNT explosive. However, we can only estimate the risk as Medline has not filed a risk management plan with the state. This means possible risks would be a mystery for first responders and environmental officials arriving on the scene in the event of an accident.

Ethylene oxide risk chart

Using these figures, we can calculate a blast wave and damage radius for a catastrophic failure at either of these facilities.

At Vantage, the primary explosion would be a fireball almost 500 feet across. It would cause instant third-degree burns to people within 3,000 feet—including workers at ABC Supply, Dynapar, Gallagher Corporation, and more.

The pressure wave would cause most houses within a half mile to collapse. It would destroy Route 41 and any vehicles on the road. It would break all windows in a one-mile radius.

The result: approximately 1,000 casualties, with many additional injuries.

Barring an explosive event, Vantage’s own risk management plan concludes that a 10-minute leak event would cover 9.9 miles and affect 387,000 people. This radius includes schools, residences, hospitals, recreational facilities, churches, airports, wildlife sanctuaries, rivers, creeks, and even Lake Michigan. This would expose people within the zone to an environment “as lethal to personnel … as most chemical agents.”[2]

There is no passive mitigation in place to stop this gas once it has been released. Vantage’s active mitigation includes two independent computer control systems to control their processes, but there is no mention of any cybersecurity measures that would protect the public if one or both of these control systems were to become compromised.

At Medline, the primary explosion would be a fireball 100 feet across. It would cause third-degree burns to people within 700 feet, including workers at nearby facilities.

The pressure wave would destroy nearly every building within 600 feet—including an AbbVie facility, Fastenal, and Precision Laboratories—and other unreinforced buildings. It would destroy Route 41 and any vehicles on the road. It would break all windows at buildings within a quarter mile—including Candlewood Suites and Fountain Square Senior Apartments.

The result: approximately 190 casualties, with many additional injuries.

These are conservative estimates, and for Medline are based only on estimated EtO stocks.

One important caveat: These calculations are based on a circular blast radius. Due to the drifting of fuel that happens in thermobaric explosions between the primary aerosolizing event and main explosion, the shape of the blast radius is rarely so easily defined.[3]

It is also important to remember that both Vantage and Medline are located in industrial zones that house other facilities with their own stocks of flammable and explosive substances—like AB Specialty Silicones. However, determining the magnifying effects of these other chemical stocks on the tremendous devastation that would result from a failure at either Vantage or Medline is beyond the scope of this post.

EtO: Wrong for residential areas

“This is awful, and not something that should be in a residential neighborhood,” said Laura Grego, senior scientist in the Global Security Program of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

We cannot agree more. We will continue to push to control this explosive, dangerous substance until we can be sure that all of us, all of our children, and all of our communities are safe. We demand that right.

Dr. Dylan Burdette has a doctorate in biochemistry and molecular biology. 

References
1. Meyer R, Köhler, J., Homberg A. Explosives. 6th ed. Weinheim, Germany: Wiley-VCH; 2007. 2. Human Rights Watch. Backgrounder on Russian fuel air explosives (“vacuum bombs”). https://www.hrw.org/report/2000/02/01/backgrounder-russian-fuel-air-explosives-vacuum-bombs. Published February 1, 2000. 3. Cross K, Dullum O, Jenzen-Jones NR, Garlasco M. Explosive weapons in populated areas: technical considerations relevant to their use and effects [PDF]. Armament Research Services (ARES): May 2016. https://www.icrc.org/en/download/file/23603/aresweb-generic.pdf. Accessed June 24, 2019.

 

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CPLC Celebrates Passage of Landmark Legislation to Clean Up Coal Ash

Coal ash pollution seeps into the Vermilion River in central Illinois. [Prairie Rivers Network photo]

Clean Power Lake County joined a dozen statewide and regional partner organizations on May 28, 2019, in celebrating the passage of SB9, The Coal Ash Pollution Prevention Act, by the Illinois Legislature. The bill now heads to the desk of Gov. J.B. Pritzker for signature.

The groundbreaking bill addresses the many waste pits filled with coal ash, the toxic byproduct of burning coal, located all over the state:

  • Creates a regulatory framework to ensure polluters, not taxpayers, pay for needed closure and cleanup.
  • Guarantees public participation and transparency around cleanups for affected communities.
  • Provides the Illinois EPA the funds it needs to properly oversee closure and cleanup.
  • Requires Illinois to put in place standards for coal ash impoundments that are at least as protective as federal coal ash rule requirements, with additional protections against dust and water pollution.

Illinois — which has the highest concentration of coal ash impoundments in the country — now is the third state in the country to pass legislation providing significant coal ash protections above and beyond federal requirements. Virginia and North Carolina also are addressing coal ash through state-level legislation.

The NRG Energy coal-fired power plant on Waukegan’s lakefront has two unlined coal ash ash ponds.

“The passage of SB9 out of the general assembly is a historic step forward for environmental justice communities across the state, like Waukegan,” said Dulce Ortiz, co-leader of Clean Power Lake County. “Environmental justice communities still have a long fight to assure community members have the basic human right of breathing clean air and drinking clean water. We call on Gov. Pritzker to prioritize the voices of a community like Waukegan and protect them from polluters like NRG Energy.”

“The passage of SB9 is a historical win for environmental justice communities throughout our state,” said Celeste Flores, with the Faith In Place Action Fund and co-leader of Clean Power Lake County. “People of faith across Illinois applaud the leadership of our elected leaders in the Senate and House for taking action on coal ash contamination of our land and water and implore the general assembly to continue to hold polluters accountable for injustice, oppression, and environmental degradation.”

The Illinois EPA has found groundwater contamination from coal ash waste sites dating back to 2009. A 2018 report from environmental groups Environmental Integrity Project, Earthjustice, Prairie Rivers Network and Sierra Club analyzing data collected by ash dump owners under the federal coal ash rule found that 22 of 24 of Illinois’ reporting coal ash dump sites have unsafe levels of toxic pollutants in the groundwater.

We thank the many Lake County elected officials who supported this important legislation: State Senators Melinda Bush, Terry Link, and Julie Morrison; and State Representatives Rita Mayfield, Joyce Mason, Dan Didech, Mary Edly-Allen, Bob Morgan, and Sam Yingling.

We also thank everyone who signed petitions, made phone calls, and visited your elected officials. We are stronger together.

CPLC Supports Principles of Equitable Policy Design for Energy Storage

Solar panels and building.
Energy storage is set to grow dramatically, and community groups and policy experts believe we should be prepared. [Sabine van Erp/Pixabay photo]
This month, Clean Power Lake County joined 25 other environmental justice and grassroots organizations, policy experts, solar and storage industry representatives, labor, consumer advocates, faith groups, and renewable energy advocates in releasing the Principles of Equitable Policy Design for Energy Storage.

The principles are the outcome of a meeting organized by the Union of Concerned Scientists to discuss policies to spur deployment of energy storage and how to design policies that put communities first.

“When combined with investments in clean energy, storage has the potential to hasten retirements of coal and even natural gas plants across the country. This is critical not only for our climate and decarbonization goals, but also to improve air quality in frontline communities,” according to a May 8, 2019, blog post by Jeremy Richardson, senior energy analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Energy storage is a technology that is poised to expand dramatically in coming years. It has a wide range of potential applications.

Meeting participants focused on the types of uses for storage that would benefit disadvantaged communities. These uses include:

  • Replacing peaking power plants and fossil-fired plants
  • Keeping the lights on and bouncing back more quickly from power outages
  • Accelerating the development and integration of renewable energy on the grid

These principles can help state policymakers and advocates focus on solutions that ensure that the growth of energy storage improves all communities.

“Getting energy storage correct and equitable is critical as we move to more renewable energy, said Celeste Flores, co-chair of Clean Power Lake County and Lake County Outreach Director for Faith in Place. She was one of several stakeholders who participated in the December 2018 meeting.

Clean Energy Jobs Act: Transformative Legislation

Dulce Ortiz at Clean Energy Day Rally, May 9, 2019.
Dulce Ortiz calls CEJA one of the most transformative pieces of state legislation in the country. [Karen Long MacLeod/CPLC photo]

Illinois’ Clean Energy Jobs Act (HB 3624/SB 2132) is one of the most transformative pieces of state legislation in the country.

Dulce Ortiz, co-leader of Clean Power Lake County, speaking at a May 9, 2019, rally for clean energy at the Illinois State Capitol, explains why:

It is amazing to see so many people from communities across Illinois here with us as we rally for the future we all deserve.

We are united by an unwavering commitment for Illinois to lead in addressing climate change. We are united by our commitment to power Illinois with 100% clean energy. We are united by our commitment to create quality careers in the clean energy economy and accessible to all communities — especially those left out of other sectors of our economy. And we are united by our commitment to transition beyond dirty fuels and to make sure that communities who carry the greatest burden of pollution and impacts from climate change are prioritized in this transition to 100% clean energy.

The Clean Energy Jobs Act (CEJA) is how we will get there.

Last year, the Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition conducted its “Listen. Lead. Share.” campaign, which included more than 60 community-based conversations on energy policy across the state.

We listened, and the input we received from those conversations formed the foundation of CEJA, one of the most transformative pieces of state legislation in the country.

CEJA is built on a vision for a clean energy future for Illinois based on what communities across the state need and want:

  • A 100% clean energy economy by 2050 with quality jobs and new economic opportunities
  • A just transition beyond fossil fuels by 2030 so communities from Waukegan to Carbondale can have healthier and more prosperous futures for their children
  • More consumer savings as we double down on energy efficiency programs
  • Greater access to cleaner transportation and electric vehicles

This bill is about so much more than repowering Illinois with 100 percent clean energy. It’s also about transforming who holds the power in Illinois and building a sustainable economy that works for everyone — not just utilities and out-of-state energy companies.

That means that every part of the state — especially those communities that too often have been left behind — have access to the jobs and investments in the green economy.

CEJA works to build a sustainable energy economy that is no longer building generational wealth on the backs of underrepresented and environmental justice communities. Even when it may be politically challenging, we’re called to stand shoulder to shoulder with our black and brown sisters and brothers and our working class white brothers and sisters in Central and Southern Illinois to ensure this transition to 100% is just, helping to repair the legacies of pollution and divestment and deliver on the economic promise of clean energy.

CPLC Submits Formal Comments on Toxic Ethylene Oxide to EPA

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On March 27, 2019, Celeste Flores and Diana Burdette went to EPA headquarters in Washington, DC, to testify on the need to protect members of marginalized communities from toxic ethylene oxide (EtO) emissions. They spoke against the reversal of EPA’s Integrated Risk Information Systems data and urged EPA to follow its mandate to protect human health and the environment.

On April 26, they added their voices to those of many other environmental justice advocates by submitting their formal comment on behalf of Clean Power Lake County.

Key points in the comment:

  • EPA is using this rulemaking about hydrochloric acid production facilities to attempt to undercut the independent, scientific standard for ethylene oxide (which is causing extremely high cancer risk in many communities across the country), and EPA must abandon this attempt
  • Communities of color and low-income communities are disproportionately exposed to pollution from hydrochloric acid facilities
  • EPA is basing its proposal for little or no regulation of hydrochloric acid facility emissions on underreported and underestimated data
  • EPA claims that hydrochloric acid facility emissions are “acceptable” but is ignoring many emissions and risks that would demonstrate greater harm that requires reduction
  • EPA must consider and address the multiple and cumulative impacts that many communities face

Celeste Flores is Lake County Outreach Director for Faith in Place and co-chair of Clean Power Lake County. Diana Burdette is a member of Clean Power Lake County’s EtO team.

Read our comments to the EPA.

CPLC Denounces Illinois Bill Seeking to Criminalize Protest

Celeste Flores (right) joined several social justice and environmental activists at a downtown Chicago press conference on April 25, 2019, to denounce Illinois HB 1633. The bill would silence environmental activists and protect the fossil fuel industry. [The People’s Lobby photo]
Clean Power Lake County is denouncing Illinois HB 1633, a bill designed to silence environmental activists and protect fossil fuel industry profits by threatening steep fines, felony charges and lengthy jail sentences for activists who exercise their freedom to protest deadly pollution and carbon emissions.

Opponents of the bill, dubbed the “Guilty by Association bill,” include social justice, environmental and faith-based groups: ACLU, Action Now Institute, Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, Chicago Committee to Defend the Bill of Rights, Chicago Jobs with Justice, Faith in Place, Fox Valley Citizens for Peace & Justice, Illinois Environmental Council, Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO), National Lawyers Guild, Natural Resources Defense Defending Rights & Dissent, Northern Illinois Jobs with Justice, People’s Action, SOIL Save Our Illinois Land, Sunrise Movement Chicago, The People’s Lobby, the Sierra Club, and Union of Concerned Scientists.

At a downtown Chicago press conference on April 25, 2019, activists said HB 1633 would discourage people from exercising their right to free speech by significantly increasing punishments for activities that are already illegal under current law. And that would clear the way for fossil fuel companies to expand pollution across Illinois, especially in communities of color.

Communities of color suffer the worst pollution by dirty energy companies. They also contend with over-policing and disproportionate rates of incarceration.

“As we all know, African American and Latinx communities are disproportionately affected by corporate polluters and Waukegan is no different. We have a coal-fired power plant on Waukegan’s lakefront that is the largest polluter in Lake County, Illinois. Our black and brown sisters and brothers have to deal with the health effects of this pollution and, most concerning, a report done by the Lake County Health Department showed that in Waukegan 1 in 3 children have asthma or asthma-like symptoms, which is well above the national average,” said Celeste Flores, Lake County Outreach Director for Faith in Place and co-chair of Clean Power Lake County.

Want to protect your right to assemble? Sign the IEC petition.

 

 

Ethylene Oxide: Lake County Moves Forward on Air Test Plans

Officials expect to complete plans for air testing in Waukegan and Gurnee in early May. [Stuart Miles/Stockvault photo]

After speaking earlier this week with Lake County Health Department officials Mark Pfister and Larry Mackey, members of Clean Power Lake County’s ethylene oxide (EtO) team say there is good reason to be excited about moving forward to document and address EtO pollution in our community.

“It is important to note that what is happening here is rather unprecedented,” said Dr. Dylan Burdette of Clean Power Lake County. “This is a situation where every official from Rep. Brad Schneider down to the mayors in the fenceline communities affected by EtO is amazed by the failure of the US EPA and the Illinois EPA to take action and ensure the safety of citizens in the face of what has happened 50 miles away in Willowbrook at the Sterigenics facility, and that it is an obvious environmental justice issue. That being said, our local officials are making remarkable strides, and very quickly.”

First, we are nearing the end of air modeling that will inform the placement of testing canisters surrounding the Medline Industries plant in Waukegan and the Vantage Specialty Chemicals plant in Gurnee, Burdette explained.

As we were able to observe from the Willowbrook test case, many of the sites that were selected by the community ended up producing data that could not be used by either the EPA or the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), the wing of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) devoted to calculating risk based on exposure, Burdette added.

In our case, all testing locations, and the number of locations, will be set using EPA modeling of air patterns, Burdette said.

A vendor has been chosen to do the air sampling, and all air samples will be analyzed using EPA facilities. In order to maintain full scientific integrity, the exact testing locations will be released only after the tests have begun.

For the air testing itself, there will be some regularity of every 3 days. There also will be randomly inserted tests in order to make sure that the facilities are not gaming the system.

The initial plan for testing is 30 days. However, if there are any valid scientific reasons for extending the testing, mechanisms are set in place by Pfister at the Lake County Health Department to extend that period as needed.

The entire planning portion of the air testing is expected to be completed over the next week, with testing due to commence in June. Once the plan is complete, contracts will be sent to the participating municipalities for votes of approval. At that point, the contract will be ratified by the Lake County Board of Health and testing will commence.

As we attempt to maintain maximum transparency during this time, we will issue updates when we can. However, we will only release factual and correct information, which may take time to vet, Burdette said.