Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Mega-Disasters: Toxic Cloud (History Channel)
Tonight (July 22) the History Channel presented the latest “Mega-Disasters” installment, “Toxic Cloud,” about the release of dangerous chemicals in huge industrial accidents, particularly at oil refineries. The HC link is here.
The show starts with the history of the ammonium nitrate explosion at Texas City, TX in 1947 (caused by the explosion of the freighters Grandcamp, High Flyer, and Wilson B. Keene). which immediately wiped out its entire fire department, and produced a fireball comparable of that with a nuclear weapon. Texas City would have another incident, a British Petroleum explosion in 2005 with 15 fatalities.
Seveso, Italy would experience a dioxin release in 1976. But the worst industrial accident ever occurred at Bhopal, India in December 1984 with a release methyl isocyanate gas during the night of December 3, 1984 from a Union Carbide plant.
The show paid particularly attention to the dangers of ammonia, chlorine, and hydrogen fluoride, the later of which is used in refining gasoline. There is talk that sulfuric acid could be used instead and would be safer, but more expensive.
The show discussed a chlorine release from a train accident in South Carolina in 2005.
In general, the danger to the public could increase if refineries are under greater pressure because of growing demand. The risk is probably greater in a country like China.
The show concluded by sketching the hypothetical risk from the waste treatment plant in SW Washington DC. Many changes have been contemplated for the plant, which is four miles from the Capitol and Pentagon, since 9/11.
Serious chemical hazards exist without explosions. The whole town of Times Beach, MO, sound of St. Louis, had to be moved because of dioxin exposure in the 90s. It isn't possible for the casual motorist to see the original town. Much of the lake Erie area in New York State has been contaminated by the Love Canal problem.
There are natural risks, too. Twice, lakes in Africa have released carbon dioxide, suffocating nearby residents.