Amid residents’ fears from November toxic gas release, Del. plant hopes to resume production

Croda Inc. released more 2,600 pounds of highly flammable ethylene oxide in November. Officials want to resume production in two months but state says more must be done.

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A woman who lives near the Croda chemical plant questions company and state officials during a meeting about November’s toxic release and steps being taken before the plant can resume making ethylene oxide. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

A woman who lives near the Croda chemical plant questions company and state officials during a meeting about November’s toxic release and steps being taken before the plant can resume making ethylene oxide. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

A Delaware chemical plant that has been partly closed since late November after the release of more than a ton of highly flammable toxic gas hopes to fully reopen in two months. The state’s chief environmental regulator, however, would not commit to that timetable.

“We have certain things that we expect them to do and they have been doing all the things,’’ said Shawn Garvin, secretary of the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, after a public meeting Wednesday night with two top Croda Inc. officials.

Bob Stewart and Chris Barnett of Croda spoke to about 50 New Castle-area residents and environmental activists about the safety measures and steps that have been taken to ensure safe operation. The plant makes ethylene oxide and related compounds at the base of the Delaware Memorial Bridge near New Castle.

After the meeting, Stewart said the company hopes to meet the state’s requirements within two months.

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Garvin’s office fined the company $246,000 for air and water quality violations in March for the release of 2,600 pounds of the toxic gas. The accident, which the company said occurred because one of the 3,500 gaskets in the system was the wrong type, shut down the bridge for seven hours on the Sunday after Thanksgiving — one of the year’s busiest travel days. It also forced hundreds of nearby residents to remain in their homes for hours until the situation was under control.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration also fined the company $262,500 for 25 violations that put employee health in jeopardy.

Since the accident, the plant has not made ethylene oxide but has had the chemical brought to the plant by rail to make other compounds that are used in products such as shampoo and toothpaste.

From left, Bob Stewart and Chris Barnett listen to a question along with Shawn Garvin, secretary of the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

Stewart, Croda’s managing director of operations for North America, said all 3,500 gaskets have been inspected and found to be functioning. He said the company has also made other safety improvements.

“We have done a lot over the last nine months and we feel confident we can run this facility safely … and this never happens again,” Stewart said. “We have to rebuild the trust. I know you aren’t going to believe everything I say, maybe nothing.”

The meeting was the second to update the public since the accident, but many residents continue to be frustrated with Croda and state environmental regulators.

Environmental activist Stephanie Herron said she’s skeptical.

“I think they have clearly taken some additional measures,’’ she said. “But I’m particularly concerned about the failure of the state government [that] inspected the facility just a few weeks before the incident occurred and it was fully preventable. So it’s very disheartening for me to hear things like, ‘Oh they responded well.’ They did and thank goodness but this was a very preventable incident.”

Others wondered why the plant doesn’t automatically shut off when such an incident occurs, but Stewart said they have systems in place to react swiftly and shut off affected areas once emissions are detected. 

More than a million gallons of water helped contain the gas during the November release. Garvin’s agency said officials did not determine that the release caused any adverse effects to air quality.

Garvin directed the attendees at McCullough Middle School and the public to check out the state’s updated question and answer sheet that was updated Wednesday. 

‘They need to have a siren’

Some neighbors fear another major gas release or fire. They want a siren to alert residents of a dangerous situation. The company uses a reverse 911 system but Stewart acknowledged that not everyone uses a land phone line and that many have not registered their cell phones with the state’s emergency management.

State Rep. Franklin Cooke said Delaware prisons have sirens, and so does the nuclear plant across the Delaware River near Salem, N.J., so why shouldn’t the Croda plant?

“They need to have a siren because our neighborhood is generational,” Cooke said. “We have homes that have mothers, grandmothers and they don’t work smartphones, they don’t know how to work a computer. You hope they do it and they are listening to their community.”

Steward and Barnett, the local site director, said there are alarms to alert employees to a dangerous situation but rejected the call for a siren to alert the thousands of people who live within a few miles.

Barnett said during the meeting that “we are trying to work hard to improve communications with the communities around us.”

When asked whether there was any plan to put in a siren system for those communities, Barnett said, “Not at this time.”

Garvin said he does not believe his agency has the authority to order sirens. 

Kenny Dryden, who grew up in the area, said community members rarely get heard by business and political leaders in Delaware.

 “It seems like we run into this all the time,’’ he said. “It’s like it goes in one ear and goes out the other. It doesn’t seem like politics but a pile of tricks going on. Because we don’t have the resources to combat high-powered corporate interests.”

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