COLUMBIA — Chemical plants, fertilizer warehouses and other businesses that use toxic materials sit perilously close to neighborhoods in many parts of South Carolina, often without anyone knowing the potential risk posed by the facilities.
At least 178 of these businesses pose enough of a threat to surrounding communities that they are required to tell the government how many people would be in danger if a major accident occurred, such as the fire and explosion that destroyed a Texas fertilizer plant and leveled the surrounding community this spring.
Knowing more about toxic threats is important, say those who follow the chemical industry, because spills and leaks occur more frequently than people realize and in many cases, those accidents occur in heavily populated areas.
The question is when the next big accident will occur, they say.
This is like disaster roulette, said Greenpeaces John Deans, referring to the threat people face from potential chemical plant releases. The one thing we can predict with some certainty is that somewhere in the U.S. in the next year, there is going to be a chemical plant accident.
South Carolina has had more than 500 chemical and oil spills during the past five years from stationary buildings, such as industrial plants, according to the federal governments National Response Center, which tracks chemical accidents.
South Carolinas most dangerous facilities, in terms of the number of people threatened, are in Orangeburg, York, Charleston, Greenville and Spartanburg counties, according to Greenpeace and a federal data base of companies that must report risks to communities.
Anywhere from 100,000 to 485,000 people would be in danger if a catastrophic accident occurred at a handful of industrial plants found in those counties, according to federal data analyzed by Greenpeace, an international environmental group. Poisons could spread for 25 miles, in some cases, if a major accident occurred, the data show.
In addition to the potential dangers from South Carolina plants, four in Georgia could affect parts of the Palmetto State, according to Greenpeace. Three of those facilities would spread chemicals into parts of Aiken County from Augusta, while another in Savannah threatens parts of Beaufort County.
Statewide, plants required to report disaster zones to the government had more than 75 million pounds of process chemicals on site in 2012, according to RTKNets website. RTKnet is a website that provides chemical data reported to the federal government. Companies required to report risk management plans to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are those that possess certain amounts of 140 chemicals.
I think people often do not realize the extent of nearby dangers, said Paul Orum, a national consultant who advises public interest groups on chemical dangers.
Orum and Deans said disasters such as those in the town of West, Texas, could happen in other places.
The April fertilizer plant disaster in Texas, which preceded several explosions at Louisiana chemical plants, killed 15 people and injured about 200 others. Ammonium nitrate used in fertilizers, the same material used by a terrorist to bomb a federal building in Oklahoma in 1995, is a key reason for the explosion, which is not believed to be the result of terrorism.
The United States has more than 12,000 facilities that must tell the government how many people accidents would affect.
But Greenpeace officials said the nation and South Carolina also have thousands more businesses that use some toxic chemicals considered hazardous enough to require notification of the government that the toxins are on site.
Jason Krusen, special operations chief for the Columbia Fire Department, said Richland County has no fertilizer plants such as the one in Texas that exploded, but it has places that store fertilizer and other chemicals, such as nurseries and warehouses.
Every year, we run into some kind of chemical-related fire, Krusen said. Is there a threat? Sure.
Company officials say they work hard to make their processes safe and the federal data only show worst-case scenarios.
John Copeland, who owns a 53-year-old Columbia chemical plant, said he hires consultants specifically to keep track of all the safety, environmental and reporting requirements his company must meet. The company must, for instance, report the impact zone in the event of an accident to the EPA, and it must report other chemical information to other agencies.
His company, Quaker Chemical Inc., also posts signs prominently on its building that chemicals are on site, he said.
Still, Quaker, like other facilities, has had spills. In May, hazardous materials teams were called to the Quaker plant after receiving reports that a vapor cloud had formed.
When they arrived at about 9:20 p.m. on May 30, firefighters learned that a container filled with hydrofluoric acid was leaking. They evacuated several nearby homes and told other area residents to stay inside, according to a Columbia Fire Department incident report. People exposed to high levels of hydrofluoric acid can die from inhaling the gas. It also can cause digestive tract problems and burn peoples skin and eyes.
No major injuries were reported, and firefighters completed cleanup by 4:30 a.m.
Some chemical leaks, however, end up with lethal consequences.
At a plant near Swansea four years ago, leaking ammonia enveloped the surrounding community and a nearby highway in a toxic cloud, forcing evacuations and killing a motorist who inadvertently drove into the poisonous fog.
Tanner Industries, which operates the plant off U.S. 302, has been fined more than $91,000 over the incident, and a Georgia trucking company that was transferring ammonia through a hose at the plant faces a criminal indictment. Tanner is adjacent to houses in rural southern Lexington County.
Albemarle Corp., which employs more than 300 people, could spew toxins for 20 miles and affect 100,000 people, according to Greenpeaces inspection of federal reporting data. The chemical plant is on the edge of Orangeburg, a mid-size city thats home to S.C. State and Claflin universities.
Newspaper accounts show that the plant has had several explosions over the years. In April 1999, one man died and another was hospitalized after a blast at the plant. Four years later, another explosion sent a black cloud skyward and shook the ground for miles. No one was injured in that incident.
During the past 20 years, Albemarle has been fined more than $88,000 by the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control for a series of air, water and hazardous waste violations, according to the agencys data base of enforcement actions. Two years ago, the company faced federal fines for Clean Air Act violations.
Albemarle officials say they have worked diligently to improve safety and environmental compliance through the years, and in 2012, the company was recognized for its safety record by the American Chemistry Council. In a statement Friday, the company said it has staff members whose jobs are to focus only on safety.
One chemical plant which took few precautions against explosions and leaks threatened thousands with its operation 20 years ago. The Divex facility in north Columbia exploded in 1993, killing its owner.
In Columbia, city officials say they are well aware of the threats that businesses with deadly chemicals pose to the community. Thats why officials are working to install an ordinance requiring every business that uses certain amounts of chemicals to report the types and locations on the property to city government.
Firefighters have a basic knowledge of whats in many businesses. But knowing more would help firefighters know which specialized equipment to bring when fighting a chemical fire, explosion or leak, Krusen said. They also would know whether to evacuate an area sooner.