Fluoride Action Network

Study: Bay Point chemical plant at high risk of terrorist attack

Source: San Jose Mercury News | East County Times
Posted on November 19th, 2008
Industry type: Electronics Industry

A Bay Point manufacturing firm is among the nation’s most dangerous chemical facilities because its contents and location make it susceptible to terrorist attack, according to a new study by a national think tank.

The report by the Center for American Progress says current security measures at sites around the nation are inadequate, and there are opportunities for safer alternative processes that would reduce the risk from terrorism.

General Chemical Bay Point Works produces high purity electronic grade hydrofluoric acid for use in semiconductor and silicon manufacturing industries.

About 2.1 million people live within range of a worst-case toxic gas release from the 26-acre site, the study said. The facility was the only one listed from Northern California and one of nine from California.

The study says temporary standards enacted in 2006 focus almost entirely on physical security measures, such as adding gates and guards. These measures cannot assure protection against attack, sabotage or catastrophic release, the report said, adding delivery routes are also insecure.

The only certain way to protect communities is to convert facilities to safer, more secure alternative technologies, the study concludes. General Chemical’s high concentration of hydrofluoric acid — from 49 percent to 70 percent — is unnecessary, according to the report, noting electronics manufacturers such as Intel Corp. regularly use less-concentrated forms of the acid — less than 50 percent — in making their products.

At concentrations below 50 percent, hydrofluoric acid does not have the same potential to form a dangerous toxic gas plume, said Paul Orum, a chemical safety consultant and author of the report.

Officials with General Chemical did not return phone calls seeking comment.

The Center for American Studies list was developed from risk management plans reported by chemical facilities to the Environmental Protection Agency. Each risk plan includes a worst-case scenario of a major chemical release for emergency planning, which the report considered.

The worst case scenario at General Chemical assumes that a rail car containing anhydrous hydrogen fluoride fails. Assuming all safety and release prevention systems fail and the contents are released in 10 minutes, the material released would travel 25 miles, according to the firm’s plan.

Contra Costa County has one of the highest concentrations of chemical and petroleum plants on the West Coast. About half are close enough to population centers to make them attractive terrorist targets.

The county has been working to improve industrial safety, notably with a comprehensive Industrial Safety Ordinance Program that holds oil refineries and chemical plants to strict standards addressing maintenance, operations, safety, incident investigations and emergency response.

A recently conducted audit — the fourth — of General Chemical resulted in 60 corrective actions for the plant to take. The county’s hazardous materials department has “taken extra actions” with General Chemical because “they weren’t implementing them as well as other” county industries, director Randy Sawyer said.

“They are in a lot better place than a couple years ago; they definitely have improved,” he said, adding the county is still trying to boost its safety standards.

The county had several accidents in the 1990s, prompting the tougher safety guidelines, Sawyer said.

In 1999, a flash fire at the Tosco refinery in Martinez killed four refinery workers. In 1993, a railroad tank car at General Chemical Corp. in Richmond overheated and released sulfuric acid into the air, sending 24,000 people to doctors’ offices and hospitals. Incidents have tapered off the past few years, Sawyer said.