Gas release underestimated

Source:, July 19,2007
By: Tom Avril

A Montgomery County plant spewed 2,400 pounds of toxic TCE last week, according to a revised report.

A Montgomery County manufacturer allowed the escape of more than 2,400 pounds of toxic gas into the air over a 2 1/2-hour period – more than 60 times the allowed amount, state officials said yesterday.

Previously, Department of Environmental Protection officials had said only that the release of trichloroethylene (TCE) – a probable human carcinogen – was more than 100 pounds.

The revised estimate for the July 10 accident came after officials at Superior Tube Co., of Lower Providence Township, reviewed their inventory and conferred this week with DEP officials.

The chemical dissipates quickly in the open air, and DEP officials said there was no indication that the release spelled danger for neighbors of the metal-tube maker, which apologized yesterday for the incident.

Still, a state senator and an attorney for a statewide environmental group both expressed concern for workers in the building, who were temporarily evacuated after the odor of TCE was detected.

Sam Heller, president of the United Steelworkers local that includes Superior Tube employees, said two workers felt “a little bit dizzy” from the gas but declined treatment. The problem was corrected and the plant resumed safe operation that day, he said; federal workplace-safety authorities are not investigating, as no complaint has been made.

The company released far more of the chemical than allowed, and it violated a requirement to report the problem within two hours, state officials said, waiting instead until 19 hours after the July 10 incident.

In a news release, Joseph A. Feola, director of the DEP’s southeast regional office, said the agency had yet to determine what enforcement action it would take.

The company’s permit allows the emission of 15 pounds per hour from the equipment that malfunctioned on July 10 – a unit that uses TCE to degrease metal.

Because a vapor barrier failed, the unit instead released nearly 1,000 pounds per hour. The total came to more than six days’ worth of emissions in just 2 1/2 hours.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency set new limits on TCE emissions this year, but exempted “narrow tube” manufacturers such as Superior and a nearby company, Accellent, from those new limits. Instead, Superior has proposed a combination of voluntary measures to reduce its use of the chemical by 30 percent, some of which it has already begun.

But that’s not good enough, said Charles McPhedran, a senior attorney with the environmental group PennFuture, noting that the company has had accidents before.

“The solution is to stop using this dangerous material,” said McPhedran, a former EPA attorney who handled air-pollution cases.

The EPA has suggested alternative chemicals, but PennFuture wants the federal agency to take stronger action – requiring companies like Superior to implement reductions. The group has petitioned the EPA to reconsider its rule, as has the state DEP. McPhedran also has urged the DEP to order immediate reductions, as it has the power to do.

Lynda Rebarchak, a spokeswoman for the DEP, said agency officials have chosen not to issue such an order because of the company’s voluntary reductions. State officials feared that such an order could potentially lead to a long, counterproductive court process, she said.

State Sen. John C. Rafferty Jr. (R., Montgomery), who represents the area where the plant is located, characterized the company’s delay in reporting the incident as “suspect.”

“They have to make sure they do a better job,” Rafferty said.

Superior officials pledged to do so, apologizing for the accident and the reporting delay.

“Superior Tube is working hard to reestablish itself as a good neighbor and remains committed to reducing its annual emissions of trichloroethylene,” the company said in a prepared statement.

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