Complaints over communication persist as Croda plant advances toward restart
State environmental regulators say Croda is “very close” to restarting the part of its New Castle facility where an explosive gas leak occurred last year.
Croda shut down the ethylene oxide (EtO) generating plant at its Atlas Point facility last November after an incorrect gasket caused the release of more than one ton of the toxic and highly flammable gas. The leak caused a temporary shutdown of the Delaware Memorial Bridge.
State environmental regulators are requiring Croda to complete employee training in operations and emergency procedures and a pre-startup safety review before it can restart the EtO plant.
“They’re getting very close,” said Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control Sec. Shawn Garvin. “Could be a month, could be two. It just really depends on how they finish up the training and what happens with the pre-startup inspection. But they’ve done kind of the lion’s share of the things they were required to do.”
Company officials said an independent contractor has checked thousands of joints at the EtO plant and that additional monitors have been installed. But some think the company needs to improve communications to surrounding communities before a restart.
The company is touting a new phone “hotline” and website for the Atlas Point facility— and is promoting the state’s ‘reverse 911’ emergency notification system, which requires voluntary registration of a phone number.
State Rep. Frank Cooke echoed neighbors and advocates’ calls for the addition of audible alarms or loudspeakers that would alert residents in surrounding neighborhoods during any future emergencies. “We need to have this audible, because I have a very four-generational neighborhood that don’t deal with phones, that don’t deal with computers, but they can hear.”
Cooke says such alarms should be installed in neighborhoods including Holloway Terrace, Overview Gardens, Garfield Park and Collins Park, which sits less than a mile from the Atlas Point facility. He says these alarms are needed before the plant restarts.
But Croda officials say they are not currently pursuing the idea of a community alarm system — and DNREC officials say they don’t have the authority to require it.
“I’m not closing the door on it,” said Robert Stewart, managing director of operations for Croda in North America. “ I would just say at this point, no, we’re not pursuing that avenue. We’re going to try the things that we’ve put in place now and work more closely with the first responders.”
Environmental justice advocates have also requested air monitors be installed in the surrounding residential communities. But Sec. Garvin says EtO monitors inside and at the perimeter of the Croda plant are sufficient.
“We’re not going to necessarily invest or require somebody to do something strictly for show,” said Garvin. “There needs to be some purpose behind what we’re doing, and I think as it relates to [ethylene oxide]… having fenceline monitoring, having monitoring inside the facility is the best place for that.”
Jeanette Swain lives just thousands of feet from Croda’s Atlas Point facility in Collins Park. She says nearby residents should be told ahead of any future emergency at the plant what actions they should take to protect themselves.
“I’m really concerned that there [be] some type of red alert, or some type of way of letting people know— are we supposed to get in our cars and evacuate? Go to a hotel? Should we go to a relative’s house? What should we do in the event of a real emergency?”
She also fears the health impacts of another leak of EtO, which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency classifies as a human carcinogen.
“It’s a serious matter,” she said. “So we need to have community involvement for the people who live closest to it, as well as surrounding communities.”
She says she plans to look into joining Croda’s community advisory council, which the company has vowed to “beef up” as it looks to restart the plant.
At Wednesday's meeting, Croda officials emphasized their desire to regain the community’s trust.
“We know that we’ve put a lot of stress on people around us,” said Stewart. “We know the community is important to allow us to operate. And we want them to feel safe, we want our employees to feel safe.”
Croda agreed to pay DNREC just over $230,000, plus administrative expenses, in March to settle violations related to the leak. Environmental advocates criticized the settlement as too low and lacking obligations to the community. The settlement agreement is currently under appeal by the state-wide group Delaware Environmental Justice Community Partnerships. Last week, the appeal's scheduled hearing before the Environmental Appeals Board (EAB) was postponed indefinitely because the parties say they have been engaged in negotiations to resolve the matter without need for a hearing, according to EAB officials.
The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) also cited Croda for the leak. OSHA served the company penalties totalling $262,548 earlier this summer for 25 “serious” violations including deficient emergency action and response plans and a failure to train employees on how to manage an ethylene oxide leak. Croda is contesting those violations.
This story has been updated to include further comment from Croda and to reflect the current status of an appeal on DNREC's settlement with Croda.