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Public airs concerns following Croda plant leak

Sophia Schmidt
Delaware Public Media

DNREC and other state agencies held a meeting Thursday to address public concerns about last month's chemical leak at a manufacturing site near the Delaware Memorial Bridge in New Castle.


Croda’s Atlas Point surfactant plant released 2,600 pounds of ethylene oxide, a flammable gas, on Nov. 25. The Delaware Memorial Bridge closed temporarily as a result. Company officials say more than one million gallons of water were used in an attempt to dissolve the release. They blame the leak on an incorrect gasket installed during construction.

The part of the operation where the leak occurred has remained closed since the event.

“We truly are very, very sorry for what happened,” said Bob Stewart, Croda’s managing director of operations for North America. “We know we created a lot of stress for people that night.”

Questions from citizens at Thursday’s meeting centered largely on a desire for more communication from state officials during and after the event.

A.J. Shall, director of the Delaware Emergency Management Agency, says nearby residents were alerted by a “reverse 911” system, which called area landlines twice. Less than half of households contacted through this system were reached.

Larry Lambert of Delaware Concerned Residents for Environmental Justice has family that lives near the Croda plant.

“You were struggling with getting the information to more residents because enough people didn’t register their phone numbers?" said Lambert. "When an amber alert goes out, it hits my cell phone, it hits all of our cell phones. When there's a storm in the area, it hits my cell phone ... It is imperative that you take the steps necessary to tap into the same resources and tools that the weatherman uses and that the people that do Amber alerts use.”


Shall says Emergency Managment does possess that technology, but that sending an alert through cell towers would have alerted more people than the agency deemed necessary.

"Aren't we better safe than sorry?" said Lambert. 

According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, ethylene oxide can cause irritation to lungs and damage to brain and nerves. It is categorized as a cancer-causing substance by the National Cancer Institute.

DNREC Secretary Shawn Garvin says that an investigation into the event is still ongoing. He says the state agency is looking into the cause of the leak, how it could have been prevented, the amount of chemical released, any environmental impacts and whether there is a need for remediation.

Garvin characterized lasting impacts of the leak as unlikely, because the gas breaks down rapidly in the environment. He said the agency will study whether soil remediation near the plant is necessary, as runoff from the water used to mitigate the leak was largely uncontained.


Some residents requested that DNREC test Charter School of New Castle for any lingering traces of the chemical. The school sits roughly 4000 feet away from the Croda plant, according to Google Maps.


Croda officials say the community was not at risk during the release.


They note the plant will not resume operation until investigations by the company and DNREC are complete.


“We will restart the plant when we feel comfortable and DNREC feels comfortable that we’ve done everything we can to make sure this never happens again,” said Stewart.


Some residents would prefer the plant never starts back up.


Bill Dunn of the New Castle County Civic League argues it should not have been permitted near residences and the Delaware Memorial Bridge in the first place.


“Ethylene oxide is explosive. It's not just flammable. If it ignites, it’s like a bomb," said Dunn.


DNREC's Garvin says the agency cannot revoke a permit as long as the operation still meets requirements.


“When certain spills, certain chemical leaks happen, there should be some sort of monitoring, and reevaluation and review of that facility," said Penny Dryden of Delaware Concerned Residents for Environmental Justice.


Several community members talked about the cumulative impacts from industry that residents of the Route 9 corridor bear.


"Us being here shows that we're above the quota over here. We've reached the limit. So at some point it's time to cut off new permits being accepted for heavy industrial in this area," said Lambert. 

The part of the plant where the leak occurred began operation in August, according to officials. Croda has operated at the Atlas Point site since 1937 and has been handling ethylene oxide there since 1940.


This story has been updated.



Sophia Schmidt is a Delaware native. She comes to Delaware Public Media from NPR’s Weekend Edition in Washington, DC, where she produced arts, politics, science and culture interviews. She previously wrote about education and environment for The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, MA. She graduated from Williams College, where she studied environmental policy and biology, and covered environmental events and local renewable energy for the college paper.