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.

 

Advertisements

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.

Soot to Solar: Closing Coal Plants Will Save Lives, Reduce Bills

Marchers near NRG coal plant in Waukegan
About 150 Lake County residents march toward NRG’s coal-fired power plant during a November 2015 vigil. [Karen Long MacLeod/CPLC photo]
If Waukegan’s coal-fired power plant closed tomorrow, all of our lights would stay on—and 143 lives would be saved between 2022 and 2030, according to Soot to Solar: Illinois’ Clean Energy Transition, an analysis released October 24, 2018, by Union of Concerned Scientists.

In fact, the faster Illinois can retire its aging, inefficient coal plants—a critical step in the clean energy transition—the greater the benefits will be for communities across the state, according to the analysis.

Here’s how closing up to nine dirty coal plants will help Illinoisans:

  • Reduce CO2 emissions by up to 51%
  • Prevent more than 1,100 premature deaths
  • Save each consumer household nearly $100 a year on their electricity bills

Celeste Flores, Lake County Outreach Director for Faith in Place and co-chair of Clean Power Lake County, and Jessica Collingsworth, Lead Midwest Energy Policy Analyst/Advocate at Union of Concerned Scientists) discussed the energy and health benefits of a just transition to renewable energy report on WBEZ’s Worldview on November 13, 2018. Listen to the WBEZ program here.

Want more info?