PITTSBURG -- Hundreds of thousands of lives are in danger because of the inherent hazards of how chlorine gas is produced, moved and stored at the state's eight chlorine-manufacturing facilities -- one of them in Pittsburg -- according to a new report led by Greenpeace.
Although Greenpeace and the Sacramento-based California Public Interest Research Group acknowledge that the risks are lower in the Bay Area, where large-scale use of the potentially deadly gas has been curtailed, the groups insist that the ongoing presence of chlorine in East Contra Costa remains a potentially devastating hazard. The gas is still made and stored near Pittsburg's waterfront, and even short-distance pipelines can fail, the groups say. Such failures are to blame for most reported chlorine gas leaks in the area over the past 20 years.
"The companies continue to store, transport and manufacture chlorine gas, and an accident could pose a huge risk to the public health," said Jason Pfeifle, a public health advocate for CalPIRG.
The Greenpeace report also states voluntary measures aren't sufficient in eliminating the potential danger.
"New rules are needed that require facilities to implement these safer processes wherever possible," it says.
That includes a push for the federal Environmental Protection Agency to require a continued phaseout of chlorine gas in favor of less hazardous alternatives, and beefing up security around chlorine manufacturing and storage, Pfeifle said.
Inhaling large amounts of chlorine gas inflames the lining of the throat and lungs; fluid accumulates in the lungs as the body tries to dilute the chlorine. After inhaling strong concentrations of the gas, people and animals can suffer serious lung injury or respiratory distress, sometimes causing an enlarged heart -- which was the cause of death for eight of the nine people who died in the United States' worst chlorine-related disaster following a January 2005 Norfolk Southern Railway train wreck in South Carolina.
The good news in the East Bay is that the primary local user of chlorine gas now gets its supply from an on-site manufacturer, greatly reducing chlorine gas shipments over railroad lines in the area, and storage on rail cars on Pittsburg-area tracks.
Chlorine is used in a wide variety of processes, including the making of plastics, refrigerants, varnishes, drugs and the synthesis of other chemicals.
"Chlorine is a necessary evil as a chemical, and realistically, you're not going to eliminate it," said David Cynamon, executive chairman of K2 Pure Solutions, based in Toronto, which since August 2011 has operated the sole chlorine-making plant in Pittsburg. It manufactures specifically for Dow Chemical, which uses chlorine from K2 as a raw material in various agricultural products, including pesticides.
"Dow welcomed K2 Pure Solutions to build a facility at our (Pittsburg) site so that we could minimize or eliminate rail transport of chlorine," said Dow spokesman Randy Fischback.
While the Pittsburg plant used to bring in virtually all its chlorine gas by rail -- more than 1,000 90-ton tank car shipments a year, mostly from another Dow plant in Freeport, Texas -- it now gets only rare chlorine shipments by rail, Fischback said, when K2's operation is down for maintenance or other issues.
Randy Sawyer, chief environmental health and hazardous materials officer for Contra Costa County Health Services, said most municipal water-treatment plants in the county now use ultraviolet light or sodium hypochlorite for disinfecting water. Only two municipal water-treatment plants -- in Antioch and Pittsburg -- still use chlorine as their everyday water disinfectant, Sawyer said, and all of the area's oil refineries also have quit using chlorine to clean equipment-cooling water.
"Overall, it's been a good trend," said Sawyer, whose office enforces state and federal laws and can levy fines or other punishments. "In Contra Costa County in the last 20 years, there is much less chlorine used than before."
Chlorine was once also shipped in quantity in rail tank cars to a second plant, HASA, a quarter-mile south of K2 Pure Solutions, off Loveridge Road. It stopped almost all rail shipments of chlorine when it started buying bleach from the nearby K2 facility, Cynamon said.
"Using chlorine to make (sodium hypochlorite) was the old way," he said. "Now it's with salt, water and power."
He notes that railroads don't want to ship potentially volatile cargo such as chlorine, with its safety and legal liability risks. But as "common carriers," freight railroads are legally obligated to haul such loads if asked and paid.
While Greenpeace acknowledges the near-total end of rail shipments of chlorine gas in the Bay Area, Rick Hind, Greenpeace's legislative director, said he hasn't had contact with K2 or Dow. He said he prefers that community groups put the pressure on local industries to adopt stricter standards, and groups including the Bay Area Refinery Corridor Coalition and the Pittsburg Defense Council are paying attention.
Kalli Graham, executive director of the defense council, said she is aware of both the dangers of chlorine handling locally, and of the reductions in rail shipments.
"There are so many hazardous chemicals and products being shipped by train and pipeline through our communities that this is just another product to add to the list," she said, adding that the ultimate answer is a safe and effective alternative to chlorine.
Contact Sam Richards at 925-943-8241. Follow him at Twitter.com/samrichardswc.