When Spills Happen

Prepared plant operators are trained to quickly and efficiently react in the case of a chemical accident.
By Chris Hanson | August 12, 2013

Prevention comes first, but in the event of a product or chemical spill, proper planning and knowing how to react to an emergency situation can save lives, environmental resources and money for an ethanol producer.

For example, in 2007, an ethanol plant was the site of one of the largest spills in Iowa’s history. Roughly 29,000 gallons of denaturant had spilled out between two railroad spurs, resulting in a 10-day cleanup operation by Seneca Waste Solutions Inc. to recover 32,000 gallons of contaminated water and excavate 5,000 cubic yards of soil. During this operation, the cleanup crew worked in conjunction with regulatory agencies to prevent further adverse environmental impacts without endangering employees.

Be Prepared
 Contingency planning is key. Matt Deutsch, vice president of Hydro-Klean LLC, says building relationships with local first responders and a response contractor are some of the most important things a producer can do to prepare for a spill.  In many cases, the company with a spill has unrealistic expectations of local fire departments and hazmat teams, he says. “The fire department can’t be there days on end doing a remediation-type project,” Deutsch says. “The fire department can help berm and dike an affected area, but they’re not going to help pick up a spilled product, neutralize the soil or help with the disposal.” By understanding those limitations, a producer can understand when response ends and remediation begins, he says.

  Chris Biellier, general manager at Seneca, says his company helps producers form emergency plans by conducting vulnerability analyses and assisting with training personnel. During an analysis, Seneca’s representatives complete a walk-through of the plant to identify weak areas requiring attention and assess the plant’s ability to mitigate spills when they occur. Once vulnerabilities are discovered, Seneca offers suggestions on how to minimize hazards, should a spill occur, until responders are on the scene.  Biellier notes rural ethanol plants may have to wait hours before response companies reach the site. Therefore, another aim of Seneca’s plan is to assist plants in buying time by either training plant operators or technicians to perform various containment tasks, or training local fire departments on how to quickly assist with mitigating spills until help can arrive.

 In addition to building relationships with first responders and completing vulnerability analyses, it is recommended that producers routinely simulate spills. “Get your plans in place and train on your plans,” says Jim Holland, president of Pinnacle Engineering. “That’s the No. 1 thing they can do to be prepared.” Holland recommends simulation exercises be held at least once a year, addressing different spill scenarios. By recreating spill scenarios, producers can gain experience on how to address and refine a plant’s response to various incidents, such as spills from rail load-outs, wet wells and even natural disasters.  “If they do that, they got 90 percent of it licked,” Holland adds.

 Holland, Deutsch and Biellier agree that working with a designated contractor has multiple, emergency preparedness benefits. All three say they believe the principal benefit is that the contractor will understand how a plant is situated when a spill occurs. Through this shared understanding, cleanup companies will know the plant and first responder limitations, local geography and geology and how those factors can affect the spill. Having a designated contractor saves on response time since it eliminates the need to negotiate rates during a spill situation, Deutsch says.  

Yellow Alert
 In the case of a spill, a facility’s initial reaction can affect how the situation turns out. Deutsch says the No. 1 priority is to assure the safety of plant employees. Workers commonly understand the risks of ethanol and other chemicals that are used during normal operation, he says, however, they should understand what their roles are when an incident occurs, such as evacuating or isolating an affected area until a response team arrives. Some plants even decide to train their own response teams, which tends to cost more, he says.

 Once workers are safe, Deutsch says plant employees should not try to “attack” the spill, but instead try to close drains while evacuating to a safe area. Additionally, plant operators should be knowledgeable about how much material was released and other factors that can affect the spill. Operator estimates of lost liquid, the presence of other hazardous chemicals and drainage patterns provide responders and contractors with valuable information that can mitigate further risks.

 All plants should have a spill contingency or response plan and any employee should know how to initiate it, Biellier says. If there is a chance a plant’s capabilities will require external assistance, those employees should notify responders immediately since they can be turned away if it is determined help is not required.

 Another resource for response planning is the Renewable Fuel Association’s Fuel Ethanol Guideline for Release Prevention. Once plant personnel, public safety officials and contractors are notified, the guidelines say the three objectives to address within 24 hours of a spill are: prevent ethanol from reaching surface water, collect pooled liquid ethanol, and begin excavating impacted soil. “The further that product gets from its intended area,” Deutsch explains, “the greater the hazard to the environment, to the people working around it, and the expense is going to go up quite a bit, if you have to deal with more soil, more groundwater and more surface water.”

 “Once it’s in the water,” Holland says, “you pretty much lost it.” If that situation occurs, oxygen must be injected into the water with air compressors to bring the body of water back to adequate levels. He explains that keeping the spill contained onsite is much easier to handle and is a relatively lower cost compared to water-based cleanups. 

Cleanup and Compliance
 Once it starts, work to clean up and remediate the spill to meet environmental compliance requirements can take days. Deutsch explains the cleanup process for spills, regardless of the material, are similar. After stopping the initial release, the next step is to prevent the escaped material from flowing offsite. Once the diking process is completed, the collected material can be removed using adsorption pads or other equipment. Finally,  the impacted soil is excavated and disposed of, while new soil is placed and compacted, or seeded, depending on the situation.

 Communication is one of the biggest challenges in responding to a cleanup, Biellier says. If a leak is still active, disclosure is crucial because responding agencies rely on accurate information to assess the situation. “No agency or response company, such as ourselves, can assume we know everything of what’s going on,” he says. “So we rely on the plants to have as much information as possible so that good, safe decisions on how to respond are made based on facts.”

 Another challenge for site remediation is meeting environmental compliance. Biellier explains that states may differ on the cleanup protocols required for each of the chemicals used at an ethanol plant. In those cases, Biellier says a plant will have a designated contact, be it a regional environmental protection agency liaison or a department of natural resources representative. Some states, such as Iowa, follow national environmental guidelines while others, such as California, have stricter, state environmental regulations, he says.

 Holland further explains that by the time the initial containment is achieved, contractors should have heard from regulators about what level of ethanol is acceptable in the soil before they begin excavating the contaminated earth. The soil could then be remediated onsite using organisms that consume the alcohol or transported for disposal.

 In the case of environmental enforcement and penalties, Holland says the amount varies. If the spill is contained onsite and remediation is completed, penalties and fines might be fairly limited, he says. On the other hand, if the spill is not contained and makes its way to a river, lake or pond, ethanol plants will be responsible for the cleanup cost of any fish kills and there may be additional charges for specialized contractors to assess environmental restoration needs. Holland adds penalties are a challenging topic to address since they depend on multiple factors, such as if the spill was truly accidental or whether some negligence is found. “Each situation is unique,” he says.

Author: Chris Hanson
Staff Writer, Ethanol Producer Magazine