This morning I was catching up on Democracy Now while engaging in an early morning bike ride.
Aside: It rained all day yesterday. That provided some welcome relief from a week long heat wave and did a great job in clearing the air of the soot and haze that had built up during the associated high pressure area and temperature inversion. Being outside and breathing deeply was a great way to celebrate clean air! End Aside.
I heard a story that I want to share with you about a chemical release from the BP Texas City refinery.
Just in case you do not watch the video, here is a summary of the story. A couple of weeks before the Deepwater Horizon “clean natural gas” explosion, a hydrogen compressor in the refinery’s ultracracker unit failed. That compressor is part of a system that allows contaminants to be captured for safe disposal. Rather than shut down the refinery, the plant decision makers decided to flare off the contaminants while the plant technicians made the required repairs.
Flaring destroys some of the chemicals, but it is only between 80% and 98% effective; some of the intact toxics escape out the stack. The flaring lasted for 40 days while the system was being repaired. The company determined from post event analysis that approximately 538,000 pounds of intact chemicals had been dumped out of the 300 foot tall flare stack and into the atmosphere shared with everyone near the plant and for several miles down wind of the facility.
The mixture of chemicals included approximately 17,000 pounds (8.5 tons) of benzene, a chemical that the US EPA classifies as a “known human carcinogen”. Though under continuing pressure to improve its operations and comply with both federal and state environmental laws, the Texas City refinery remains in full operation with few, if any, calls for it to be shut down.
I could not help but make the comparison in my mind between the very muted reaction to the Texas City oil refinery benzene leak and the Vermont Yankee tritium leak. On one hand you have an oil refinery that dumped 17,000 pounds (7.7 million grams) of benzene directly into the atmosphere and on the other you have a nuclear power plant that released roughly 0.035 milligrams of tritium (.35 curies with a curie of H3 = .1 milligram) into the ground under the reactor plant itself.
The US EPA classifies benzene as a known human carcinogen. The same organization says that tritium can increase the risk of cancer “as with all ionizing radiation”. Here is what the EPA also says about tritium – “because it emits very low energy radiation and leaves the body relatively quickly, for a given amount of activity ingested, tritium is one of the least dangerous radionuclides.”
As far as I can tell, the only media outlets that have carried the Texas City benzene story are Propublica, Tucson Sentinel, Democracy Now, and PBS, but it is hard to forget the incredible quantity of ink and broadcast time devoted to excoriating the owners of Vermont Yankee over its uncontrolled release of tritium into the ground beneath the plant.
Galveston County – The Daily News (June 5, 2010) BP: 500,000 pounds of emissions released
ProPublica (July 2, 2010) BP Texas Refinery Had Huge Toxic Release Just Before Gulf Blowout
Note: There is a possibility that I have made a math error or moved a decimal point in the wrong direction. If you find any errors, please let me know. It really does boggle my mind to be comparing 7.7 million grams to 0.035 milligrams.