Monday, May 12, 2014

An ominous letter

Also in this week's C&EN, a rather ominous letter: 
Concerning the News of the Week article “Protection for Drinking Water” and on the basis of my observations, I believe legislation is urgently needed (C&EN, Feb. 10, page 6). I was hired as an independent consultant to assess potential environmental damage costs from the operations of a chemical subsidiary of a major international firm based in Pittsburgh. 
The firm has plants along the Ohio River in Pennsylvania and the Illinois River near Chicago. I saw several large chemical storage tanks along the shore of the Ohio River about 30 feet above its normal water level. Each tank was surrounded by an earthen berm designed to hold the contents of the tank if it failed. The products being stored are chemicals used as precursors for plastics production in the Illinois plant. 
I was unable to confirm with the plant operators that a failure of a tank at its maximum storage capacity would be contained within its berm, but my rough estimate was that a spill into the Ohio River might be possible. Furthermore, I noted that a major flood of the Ohio River might topple or shift the tanks and likely result in a rupture. 
The situation in Illinois seemed no better. The customer for my consultation was an investor group that proposed to buy the chemical subsidiary. I told them their environmental exposure was unlimited. I could not begin to estimate how large it might be if either the Ohio or Illinois River were contaminated by their chemicals. I was later told they had bid $100 million to buy the subsidiary. Fortunately, they did not win the contract. 
Laws to provide for regular state and/or federal inspection of such facilities are urgently needed. I urge prompt passage of S. 1961 by the U.S. Congress. 
Richard S. Greeley
St. Davids, Pa.
So who's the mysterious company? My guess is Lanxess, but I dunno.


  1. Lanxess is headquartered in Germany. I'd go with PPG (Pittsburgh Plate Glass)

  2. It might have been PPG's former commodity chemicals business, which was spun off in January 2013 and is now part of a merged company called Axiall. They have a chlor-alkali plant along the Ohio River in Natrium, WV. But I'm not aware of any former PPG commodity chemicals plants sited along the Illinois River:

    Also, the PPG deal was valued at over $2 billion, so $100 million could not have been a serious bid. And the deal appears to have been quite a bit more complicated than it simply being offered for sale. So the details given don't quite match PPG Industries (which has been diversified for decades now--"Pittsburgh Plate Glass" is just its historical name).

    There are other possible Pittsburgh-based companies, but I can't yet find a match to the details in that letter. Perhaps he got the name of the river wrong. There is an Axiall chlor-alkali shipping terminal on the Des Plaines River (just a little upstream from the Illinois River) in Lemont, IL. But this is not a polymer plant. Hmmm.