Houston Chronicle, February 13, 1999, 08:10 p.m.
Y2K petrochemical warnings sounded
Houston-area plants race computer-driven clock to prevent disaster
By BILL DAWSON
Copyright 1999 Houston Chronicle Environment Writer
As the nation's petrochemical capital, Houston faces a unique array of potential problems, ranging from the catastrophic to the merely troublesome, because oil and chemical plants are controlled with thousands of computer chips that may be vulnerable to the much-publicized Year 2000 bug.
Industry officials are racing the clock to identify and correct plant systems containing date-sensitive chips that won't read 2000 properly. At the same time, companies are reviewing and refining their contingency plans in case they don't find all the problem chips and the computer glitch causes an emergency.
With a flood of recent reports on the Y2K bug's threat in other computerized areas of modern life, the additional specter of fires, explosions and toxic clouds at petrochemical plants might seem like premillennial jitters or technophobia.
In this case, however, the warnings are coming from people and groups more noted for their expertise in the industry's complex workings than for any tendency toward doomsaying, and who are taking care to distinguish their concern from alarm.
"It's not a hoax," said Ray Skinner, area director of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration's Houston South office. "It's a real issue and something that's very, very important."
· The Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which counts the United States and 28 other nations as members, declared in December through its Working Group on Chemical Accidents that the possibility of problems caused by the Y2K bug is "a serious problem which must be addressed immediately."
· The U.S. Chemical Safety and Accident Investigation Board, a new nonregulatory agency, has been drafting a report to Congress on the need to head off Y2K problems. "This is a problem that touches everybody, but I don't think there's a reason to be panicked," said Dr. Sam Manan, a Texas A&M University expert on chemical safety participating in the report's preparation.
· The Oil & Gas Journal, a leading trade periodical, last fall called the Y2K bug, including its safety ramifications, a "problem of unprecedented scope for (the) petroleum industry."
· An OSHA memo advises industry officials to evaluate devices including alarms, air monitors, hazard-communication databases, generators and underground tank monitors for possible Y2K problems. "Fixing the problem may be painstaking and labor intensive," it says. "Not fixing it may be worse."
Industry officials not only are trying to prevent problems in their own plant systems, but also are alert to the disastrous potential if the Y2K bug somehow cuts off electric power to their facilities for an extended period.
Dr. Angela Summers, a chemical engineer and safety consultant who works with many petrochemical companies, imagines such a scenario:
It's early morning on Jan. 1, 2000. Dancing lights sparkle on the Houston Ship Channel's murky waters. They aren't reflections of anyone's millennium party, but dozens of safety flares that have roared into action at oil and chemical plants along the channel. The improbable suddenly has become reality.
"Houston will be well lit" if that happens, Summers said. "It will look like a big birthday cake from the sky."
The cheerfulness of that image is actually fitting. Planned shutdowns of large oil and chemical plants take days, even weeks, to ensure safety and pollution problems don't crop up. Any unplanned shutdown is riskier, but the successful activation of all those flares would be the best outcome, because they burn gases that otherwise might escape disastrously.
The extensive safeguards in place at petrochemical plants have become increasingly dependent on computer technology in recent years, necessitating the correction of software and other items that might fall prey to the Y2K bug.
Since the 1970s, plants increasingly have been laced with thousands of devices employing date-sensitive computer chips, which help workers control chemical reactions, monitor operating conditions and carry out safe plant shutdowns.
If even one or a few chips can't read the year 2000 properly, those systems might not work properly. The prospect of several simultaneous failures is particularly worrisome to safety experts, as is the prospect of one failure causing other devices to malfunction.
Other facilities like offshore oil platforms and pipelines, which form a spider's web beneath the Houston area, also depend on "embedded systems," so named because computer chips are embedded in them.
The word "triage" frequently crops up in descriptions of industry efforts to find and correct systems susceptible to Y2K problems. Because there may not be enough time left to find all date-sensitive items -- especially for some late- starting or slow-moving companies -- many efforts are focusing on systems critical to plant operations and safety.
Some industry officials say flatly that if a company is not far along in its efforts to become "Y2K-compliant" by now, it should now work intensively on contingency planning for a possible emergency.
Many corporations, trade organizations, government agencies and academic experts are paying attention to the issue and stepping up their efforts to address it.
A frequent refrain is that large petrochemical companies will probably avoid major Y2K-related problems but that small and mid-size enterprises -- including facilities that use but don't make toxic chemicals -- may lack sufficient awareness or resources to do the necessary detective work and retrofitting.
"There is a sizable concern, which I share, that there may be people who are not attentive to this issue and that it could cause serious problems at their facilities," said Dr. Jerry Poje, a toxicologist and member of the Chemical Safety and Accident Investigation Board.
"At a minimum, they might have a plant shutdown," Poje said. "But even if it's a safe shutdown, the period of time (to accomplish that and then safely restart operations) is too painful for small businesses and work forces to absorb."
Drawing criticism from some chemical safety advocates, government agencies at the state and federal level are pursuing a nonregulatory approach that emphasizes communicating the need for potentially affected companies to take preventive action.
The Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission, the state's principal environmental protection agency, has confined its involvement to form letters advising regulated facilities that Y2K-related corrections may be needed to assure public health and safety. The letters provide references to sources of information on the Internet.
"We really don't have the resources to offer the regulated community any kind of technical assistance," TNRCC spokesman Patrick Shaughnessy said.
Federal agencies have principally focused on working with industry organizations, such as the American Petroleum Institute and Chemical Manufacturers Association, to spread the word to member companies about the need to fix Y2K problems.
"Early in these discussions, we told trade associations we were not approaching them as a regulator, but were trying to partner with them, to increase awareness, develop surveys and make them public," said Don Flattery, sector outreach coordinator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Project Y2K Management Team.
Congressional leaders have made clear they have little interest in granting extra powers to federal agencies to address the issue now, either with regulation or detailed advice on corrective measures.
"Specific technical guidance would be very difficult, particularly at this juncture, at this stage of the game," he said.
OSHA's Skinner said efforts aimed at finding and correcting Y2K problems are widespread at Houston-area plants, at least those visited recently.
"At every plant we've dealt with, they're working on it," he said.
Still, he voiced concern that plans to get prepared for computer-glitch complications at certain plants could increase safety risks, especially for workers.
He worries, for instance, that companies' concerns about a Y2K-triggered shortage of oil or processed chemicals might prompt them to stock up, refilling older process vessels near plant control buildings that are now kept empty to enhance worker safety.
At the same time, he said, such companies may assign additional workers to these now more-vulnerable buildings in case they need to perform more control functions manually when Y2K problems afflict plant systems.
Two companies with Houston-area plants -- OxyChem and Rohm and Haas -- described their Y2K-readiness efforts in December at a special meeting of
the Chemical Safety and Accident Investigation Board in Washington, D.C., on the issue.
18,000 items to check
With the help of a consultant, OxyChem identified 18,000 items in its 34 plants' control systems that needed to be checked -- a much-larger number than plant personnel had found in their own, more limited inventory in 1996.
Employees developed a screening method to identify those devices with possible Y2K problems -- looking for those that generate a real-time date, for instance, or share digital signals with another device, said Dan Daley, the company's maintenance director.
This screening winnowed the 18,000 devices to fewer than 500, which are now being fixed, undergoing further testing or which require extra guidance from their manufacturer to assess, said Dan Daley, the company's maintenance director.
"Nominally, by midyear we hope to have all remediation complete," Daley said. "Our objective is to run through the key Y2K dates, but there are still issues that we need to deal with, including whether our electric suppliers and the overall electricity grid will be supplying our plants adequately."
Like OxyChem, Rohm and Haas is combining its search-and-repair efforts with contingency planning, including an evaluation of whether to temporarily shut down plants before Dec. 31 as an extra precautionary measure.
"Certainly one is to stop production at some point before the millennium, but that's only one option," spokesman Ken Gedaka said.
Some Rohm and Haas plants are typically shut down between Christmas and New Year's Day anyway, and the company may place others that operate at that time -- including its Deer Park facility -- in a "ready-to-shut- down mode," Gedaka said.
The company is now testing some corrected items, Gedaka said, and expects to finish a final step of reintegrating all repaired systems into plant operations by June 30.
Some industry officials and other experts fear, however, that not all companies are that far along.
"I haven't heard any customer say they've found a (Y2K-related) failure that would have caused an explosion, but they've found a lot of little things that failed, which in combination may result in an incident," said Summers, the La Marque-based director of Premier Consulting and Engineering, part of Triconex, a company that makes emergency shutdown systems for petrochemical plants.
"I've worked with some companies with process systems that are archaic, with safety systems that are 20 years old," she said. "Some companies are spending a lot of money to fix these problems and some are not spending anything at all."
As a result, she believes some plants may not be able to avoid all computer- related safety problems.
"For some of the companies without adequate Y2K preparation, it's likely that some kind of incident will occur -- a potential fire, explosion or toxic release," she said.
With that prospect in mind, experts such as Manan, a chemical engineering professor at A&M and director of its Mary Kay O'Connor Process Safety Center, see a need for public officials in communities near petrochemical facilities to make sure they are ready for Y2K-related emergencies there.
"From a local government perspective, do Houston's emergency coordinators know the total number of facilities that might have problems?" he asked. "Do they have response mechanisms in place, and do they have their own Y2K problems in emergency response?
"The whole area of contingency planning needs a quick going-over."
RTK or Left-To-Wonder?