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Explosion not primary concern with local plant

by: SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: KATIE WILSON - Dyno Nobel, in Deer Island, is a mile and a half from Columbia City, giving it much more of a buffer zone compared to the fertilizer plant in West, Texas, which was built near schools and residential buildings.If the Dyno Nobel fertilizer plant in Deer Island were to explode like the West Fertilizer plant in Texas did April 17, it is unlikely the disaster would be as catastrophic given Dyno Nobel’s more isolated location and differences in plant operations.

Of greater concern to Columbia County’s emergency responders and officials in nearby Columbia City are the hazardous materials riding the rail line or traveling the river on a regular basis.

“There’s a potential for derailing that could happen within our city limits versus a mile and a half out where Dyno Nobel is located,” said Leahnette Rivers, Columbia City administrator and recorder.

Because of this, one of the top priorities for Rivers and others is to improve the area’s emergency communications systems. Currently, they rely on a telephone alert system, the Columbia Alert Network, which uses landlines. However, more people are choosing cell phones over landlines and often will not answer landlines at all if they don’t recognize the caller’s phone number.

As far as plant operations go, Columbia River Fire and Rescue Chief Jay Tappan is most concerned about the anhydrous ammonia stored at the Deer Island plant.

The colorless liquefied gas is nonflammable but is very dangerous. It can cause everything from coughing and nausea to permanent eye damage and even death.

And the fertilizer plant does not have a clean track record when it comes to reporting and managing ammonia leaks. In 2009, the plant was ordered to pay a $17,000 civil fine for failing to properly report an ammonia leak. In 2012, Department of Environmental Quality records obtained by The Willamette Week revealed the plant shut down after a power outage in 2010 and a valve was left open when the plant was restarted. Five days later, a company inspector discovered the open valve. An estimated 24.6 tons of ammonia had escaped.

In an interview with the Spotlight April 24, Mark MacIntyre, a spokesperson for the EPA’s Region 10, covering the Pacific Northwest, would only say the regulatory agency is in conversation with the Dyno Nobel plant about compliance issues. He said he couldn’t discuss whether or not these talks hinged on old or new compliance issues.

The Texas explosion could have implications for fertilizer plant management and regulation in the future, but regulators are cautious about coming to any conclusions before investigators wrap up work at the West, Texas plant.

The EPA, for instance, has made different types of facilities a priority over the years as issues have come up.

“That’s not to say we’re going to make fertilizer plants a priority this time,” MacIntyre said. “In this case, we don’t know yet. It’s part of a larger process.”

Dyno Nobel, which is owned by an Australian chemical company, is also waiting for more information.

“At this stage, specific details about West Fertilizer Plant, the explosion, and the products stored on site are still uncertain and unknown to Dyno Nobel,” said a Dyno Nobel spokesperson. “As such, we are not in a position to comment or speculate about the plant, or the events that have taken place.

But local discussions are in the works.

“We’re very much interested in what happened in Texas,” Rivers said. A discussion on anhydrous ammonia, a material shipped into the plant by rail, and continued discussion about emergency response issues is on the agenda for a Hazard Mitigation Planning Group meeting in Columbia City May 6.