6:09 PM EST, January 16, 2014
Too much of anything, including water, can be a killer.
Hold that thought as we consider this week's scary headline from the PublicSource online news organization, which said, "1.5 million Pennsylvanians live close to large amounts of hazardous ammonia."
An accompanying map was festooned with little tabs indicating that the heaviest concentrations of ammonia storage facilities are in the eastern half of the state. By clicking each tab, you discover which locations in the Lehigh Valley and surrounding areas are, in the words of the story, "at risk in a catastrophic chemic accident."
There was special emphasis on the Yuengling Brewery in Pottsville and the Airgas Specialty Products plant in Palmerton.
"EPA [the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency] classifies [the Palmerton plant] as a high-risk facility because of the large population that lives within its worst-case scenario," the story said.
"Previously," it said, "Airgas reported that a toxic plume could reach 660,000 people living within 21 miles of the facility. That was, by far, the greatest potential impact of any ammonia facility in Pennsylvania."
Now, the story said, Airgas has taken steps to "install safer equipment" and the number of people within range of an ammonia leak dropped to 30,000.
"The Airgas Specialty Products facility," company spokesman Barry Strzelec told me in an email, "is operated with the safety of our associates and the surrounding community as a top priority. … [Ammonia] is stored in a containment area with 360-degree ammonia detectors. The containment area is also protected by water cannons for vapor suppression."
The PublicSource map tabs were for the 122 Pennsylvania facilities that store "dangerous ammonia stockpiles," meaning that each has at least 5 tons of ammonia.
Beverage-makers use ammonia for refrigeration, the story noted, so that's why Yuengling was mentioned. (I used to live a block from the Yuengling plant and the aroma of hops was often in the air, but I never smelled ammonia. I guess they were careful about closing the containers.)
Other applications, it was reported, include the manufacture of fertilizer, which also has a personal meaning for me. I'll get back to that, but before readers get panicky, a few other things should be observed.
PublicSource pointed out more than 900 ammonia accidents in America that killed 19 people and injured more than 1,600. That, however, was over a 16-year period ending in 2011. The nation has more fatalities per year from hot-air balloon accidents.
So before we get too upset over ammonia leaks, we first should be more concerned about getting hit by falling balloonist bodies.
Still, ammonia can be nasty stuff. "Having this information can only protect the public," the PublicSource story quoted Sofia Plagakis of the Right-to-Know Network as saying. "The public has a right to know if they are living near a high-risk facility."
I'm not sure how high the risk actually is, but there is irony in the concerns over the Airgas plant in Palmerton. It is situated on the site of one of America's truly terrible cases of pollution.
Decades ago, the old New Jersey Zinc smelting complex in Palmerton emitted enough toxic fumes to kill nearly all the vegetation — including the grass and trees on Blue Mountain — for miles. The area was declared a Superfund site by the EPA, meaning it was dangerously contaminated.
The situation has improved greatly over the years, and Horsehead Industries has replaced New Jersey Zinc, but I think the zinc-smelting problems were far worse than any ammonia leaks could ever be.
Other large ammonia storage sites reported by PublicSource include East Penn Manufacturing in Lyons, the Panther Creek Energy Facility in Nesquehoning, Bethlehem Energy Center in Bethlehem, Vertellus Health and Specialty Products at Delaware Water Gap and Millard Refrigerated Services in Allentown.
I have two vivid memories concerning ammonia from my younger days.
The worst job I ever had was in a fertilizer factory, where, as the newest employee, I was given the most horrible chore. I had to take a big wheelbarrow full of waste along a high catwalk in a storage building and dump it into a bin at the end of the catwalk. That entire building reeked of ammonia and my burning eyes and I barely made it to the bin and back.
While in the Air Force, I worked on nuclear weapons and at one point I was responsible for all the warheads in the GAM-77 Hound Dog missiles mounted under the wings of B-52 bombers at Beale Air Force Base in California. There was a problem of impact crystal cables for the nuclear warheads frequently going bad, and the cables were routed behind the missiles' ammonia cooling tanks, which were extremely difficult to remove and reinstall.
When the brass refused to let me reroute the cables, I eventually had to "red-line" many warheads, which resulted in most of the B-52s at that base being grounded. You could not believe the ensuing fuss, but I took perverse delight in it. An obstinate buck sergeant had vanquished the brass.
As for the ammonia stored in Pennsylvania, I plan to fret over it as soon as find a way to stop all those hot-air balloon flights.
Paul Carpenter's commentary appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
Copyright © 2014, The Morning Call