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Chemical Industry Leaders Assess Y2K Plant Safety

Date sent:      Sat, 26 Dec 1998 21:55:35 -0800 (PST)
Send reply to:  [email protected]
From:           "Claire W. Gilbert, Ph.D." 
Subject:        Chemical Industry Leaders Assess Y2K Plant Safety

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Chemical Industry Leaders Assess Y2K Plant Safety

By Claire W. Gilbert, Ph.D.*

WASHINGTON, DC, December 23, 1998 (ENS) -- Chemical industry
executives responsible for dealing with the Year 2000 computer
problem are making computer corrections. But they are also looking
at contingency plans and emergency response plans they told a
gathering here Friday hosted by the Chemical Safety Board, a
government agency, to report on Y2K plant safety.

The Board held the one day workshop after the Senate's Y2K
Committee asked it for a report on the chemical industry. The
report will be delivered next month to co-chairs of the special
Senate committee, Senators Bob Bennett, a Utah Republican and Chris
Dodd, a Democrat from Connecticut.

The big problem in chemical plants is the thousands of embedded
microprocessors or chips, some of which have internal clocks that
may fail when they turn over to the year 2000 because they are
using only two digits, "00," to represent the year. The double zero
may be read as 1900 and cause controls and processors to fail or

These chips are hidden away in machinery. Most Y2K experts consider
embedded systems to be the real threat, not the PCs which will
mostly be fixed by 2000.

Regarding the impact of Y2K, safety expert Dr. Sam Mannan told ENS,
"No one has been able to predict if failures will result in
catastrophic accidents." Mannon directs the Mary Kay O'Connor
Process Safety Center at Texas A&M University and facilitated the
Chemical Safety Board workshop.

The big companies are fixing or replacing their embedded chips and
expect to be nearly 100 percent done when 2000 rolls around. 
Critics have complained that is not good enough, but Mannon said
that workshop experts - after looking at this issue -- concluded
that "failure of one chip will not lead to a catastrophic

The big chemical companies made checklists of which chips are
where, and then asked if they can fix the chips. They also asked
what will happen if a particular chip goes down.

Potential failure of electrical power greatly concerned the
workshop attendees. "Our greatest exposure is unquestionably in
utility failures," said Jordan Corn, an engineer at Rohm and Haas.

A large manufacturing plant can't exist for long on the power
output of even the most powerful generators. "If you're going to
try to buy enough portable electric generators to run a chlorine
plant, you're not going to make it," said Adrian Sepeda, director
of the risk management group at OxyChem.

"Refineries may fail to detect toxic leaks, or may open valves at
the wrong time, spurring Bhopal-scale disasters," warns Chris
Clarke, editor of Earth Island Journal.

An executive at a volatile gas manufacturing company in the U.S.
told Y2K consultant Peter de Jager that a test at his company's
manufacturing plant exposed a terrible danger. When the date in the
company's computers was experimentally moved forward, an embedded
chip failed, shutting down the plant's cooling system. Without the
cooling system, the official said, the plant would have exploded.

But industry experts at the Friday's workshop said that there are
many layers of safety so that one chip failure probably won't
matter. Mannon added that "many failures at a plant could" but
doubted a single failure of a chip would cause a catastrophe.

Mannan expressed other concerns regarding the small and medium
enterprises (SME's). "They are either unaware of the Y2K problems
or don't have resources to fix them" he said. The workshop judged
that the small and medium size businesses can learn from the large
ones, and the methods of the latter can be tailored for SME's.

Another issue is that many firms - both large and small - have not
yet made contingency and emergency plans.

Should there be "five or ten serious accidents at once, emergency
response agencies may have their own problem" said Mannan. They may
not be able to respond to everything at once.

Chris Clarke, Editor of Earth Island Journal, counseled readers,
"to contact your representatives in government to demand
legislation to shut down all non-essential, non-Y2K-compliant
chemical and atomic industrial facilities before January 1, 2000."

Y2K author Jim Lord said environmentalists who want to shut down
chemical and petroleum plants "are probably right."

Rohm and Haas, a giant chemical manufacturing firm and participant
in the workshop plans to shut down its plants in December 1999 to
avoid Y2K glitches.

Mannan told ENS that shutting down may not be prudent, that "it
will delay the outcomes. And many accidents happen during start

The workshop members decided that it is important to start looking
at contingency plans and emergency response plans. Mannan
concluded, "Nobody knows what's going to happen."
Environment News Service (ENS) 1998. All Rights Reserved.

*Claire W. Gilbert, Ph.D., is publisher of Blazing Tattles.  Web
address:  Email: 
[email protected].
Blazing Tattles brings you a new Y2K preparedness email list for
people with with MCS (Multiple Chemical Sensitivity) or other
special needs:  Sign up at or
write to [email protected].

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