Some environmental justice advocates are not satisfied with the state’s recent settlement with a chemical company over a toxic leak last year.
The settlement requires Croda to pay $246,739 to resolve violations related to the release of nearly 2,700 pounds of highly flammable ethylene oxide at its Atlas Point plant in New Castle last November.
Larry Lambert of Delaware Concerned Residents for Environmental Justice (DCR4EJ) calls the fine “shamefully low,” considering the multi-national company’s annual revenue.
“Fines are meant to discourage polluters from violating again,” said Lambert. “If you look at that fine, if it were doubled or even tripled, it would still be a slap on the wrist. So with that being said, that fine isn’t acceptable.”
According to the Secretary of DNREC’s order, the portion of the Atlas Point plant that manufactures ethylene oxide got approval from state officials to operate fully just one month before the leak. The facility operated for several weeks without authorization, according to the order.
The company says the leak was caused by an incorrect gasket.
Bill Dunn, a former Dupont employee and vice president of the Civic League for New Castle County, says he wants to see the company required to improve process control valving at the plant, which Dunn says could automatically shut pipes down in the event of a leak.
“Are [DNREC officials] going to put requirements on them operating that dangerous of a facility that close to residents and the Delaware memorial bridge, to guarantee that they’ll never have an incident like that again?” asked Dunn. “Right now that remains in question.”
In a statement, Croda spokeswoman Cara Eaton said, the “risk was minimized in large part thanks to our response systems … the night of the incident.”
DCR4EJ's Lambert says even before the leak, advocates were concerned about ethylene oxide exposure around Croda’s plant. The chemical is a known human carcinogen.
According to EPA data from 2014, cancer risk from ethylene oxide alone in one census tract in New Castle exceeds EPA’s acceptable risk for all air toxics combined. That data was collected before the company began producing ethylene oxide on-site last year.
During the November incident, over a million gallons of water were sprayed on the leak in an attempt to dissolve it, according to Croda officials. DNREC says 700,000 gallons of the deluge water spilled onto the ground. The agency is ordering Croda to perform soil and groundwater testing and possible remediation.
According to a Croda official, the company has completed “a comprehensive sampling plan, to confirm there are no environmental effects from this incident.”
Penny Dryden of DCR4EJ says neighbors have not been compensated — and have been left out of the settlement process.
“I think that was wrong to do,” said Dryden. “I think the community should have definitely had some input into the terms of our settlement.”
Dryden says state requirements should include more community involvement by Croda. “There should be education campaigns and Croda should provide funds for that,” she said. “There should be air monitoring, community air monitoring programs.”
Dryden says a list of questions presented to state officials months ago by her grassroots environmental justice advocacy group have not been answered.
She adds she would like to see the settlement appealed by residents. “Let’s look at this thing again,” she said. “We need to add in some community terms to this settlement … Because there’s a whole lot missing. There’s nothing in place to say this won’t happen again.”
At a public meeting in December, New Castle residents requested improvements to the state emergency notification system. DCR4EJ's Lambert says community members have not seen evidence of any.
Ethylene oxide production at the Atlas Point plant halted after the leak. Croda officials say once the company has satisfied other actions prescribed by DNREC, the plant will resume producing the chemical.
Officials from DNREC declined to comment on the agreement with Croda beyond the language in the settlement and the Secretary’s Order.
Croda's Atlas Point plant manufactures surfactants, agents that help keep oil and water together in consumer products ranging from face creams to paint.