Production of Fracking Chemicals: A Cautionary Tale

By Bernhard Debatin

Many fracking fluids are dangerous, highly toxic, carcinogenic, —  and also highly flammable. On Oct. 3, 2011, a massive fire destroyed the central Magnablend chemical plant  in Waxahachie, TX, about 30 miles south of Dallas. The facility mostly produced fracking fluids. The fire broke out around 10:30 a.m. and burnt for hours, sending huge plumes of black smoke into the sky. Due to the lack of proper containment systems, the liquid chemicals, many of which were on fire, spread quickly throughout and beyond the premises of the plant. Several severe explosions indicated that propane tanks and other highly explosive chemicals blew up in the fire, too.

Due to the intensity of the fire and the smoke, about 1000 people were evacuated from a school and an apartment building. While only two workers suffered minor injuries, the fire destroyed a $1.5 million fire truck in addition to the plant. The fire was mostly contained by 7:30 p.m., but some smaller hot spots kept burning into the next day and the fire smoldered for several days.

The fire and its circumstances tell a cautionary tale about confusion, denial, trivialization, lack of oversight, and whistle-blowing that went unheard. This seems to be a typical pattern for accidents in complex facilities involving hazardous substances. As fracking is becoming an increasingly widespread practice in Ohio and many other states, production and transportation of  fracking fluids will need to be monitored closely, as they pose many potential hazards.

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All pictures replicated (via screenshot) only for posterity.
All credit goes to the original publisher WFAA

1. Confusion, Denial, and Downplaying

In the first hours, attention was obviously focused on the fire and the attempts to put it out. But the black smoke was alarming enough that EPA officials were notified and came to take air samples. In their preliminary testing,  the EPA only found “extremely low levels” of two chemicals and that there was no “significant public health threat.” However, local residents residents reported strong chemical smells and headaches. And the local TV station WFAA also quoted officials saying that there were “definitely contaminants in the air” and that they “asked people in the surrounding areas to evacuate or stay indoors, saying the air contains elements dangerous to breathe in and to the skin.”

It remains unclear how much air pollution resulted from the burning chemicals, not  least because “EPA air quality tests were basic and limited.” It is worth mentioning that many chemical substances did not just go up in smoke, they also escaped as run-off, contaminating soil and nearby culverts , ditches, and ponds. A WFAA report of Dec. 2, 2011, claimed that soil and water contamination resulted in the death of over 1800 fish and triggered a criminal investigation by EPA and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. According to the Magnablend website, the company removed about 4.8 million gallons of contaminated water, including rain water that came in contact with contaminated soil, from the premises by Dec. 28, 2011.

Adding to the confusion, the owner of Megablend, Scott Pendery, trivialized and minimized the involved chemicals. Until late in the day after the fire, he only declared that the facility made agriculture and oil and gas products, and the chemicals  mentioned “were mostly harmless or marginally volatile.” But WFAA added, “when when pressed, the owner began telling another story. Most of what the plant was producing was a dangerous cocktail of chemicals blended specifically to be used in hydraulic fracturing (or ‘fracking’) fluids” (my emphasis). Yet Magnablend owner Pendery continuously refused to provide the public a complete list of the chemicals stored and used in the plant.

Another view of the burning chemical plant

The chemicals present at the plant included large amounts of hazardous Tier 2 chemicals. According to Texas regulations, Tier 2 chemicals must be reported annually and consist either of “extremely hazardous substances” (500 pounds or less) or of “generally hazardous chemicals” (10,000 pound or more). In its own Tier 2 report, Magnablend listed large amounts of Tier II hazardous chemicals (at least 225,000 lbs according to the Ellis County Right to Know factsheet). Among those were highly volatile chemicals such as methanol, potassium hydroxide, 2-ethyl hexanol, anhydrous ammonia, hydrofluoric acid, dodecylbenzene sulfonic acid, and ethylene glycol  Update (1/17/12): The Tier 2 report for the central facility lists volatile and toxic chemicals such as butyl lactate, epoxy resin, copper, aromatic naphta, methanol, petroleum distillates, and mineral oil (see Magnablend’s Tier 2 report, p. 27ff.).

The local TV station WFAA’s had even more alarming news: “Waxahachie Fire-Rescue Chief David Hudgins told News 8 he was not aware that 80 percent of what Magnablend produces is fracking chemicals” and “EPA officials said they had no idea what Magnablend was producing at the plant.” The same WFAA report also claimed that the chemical plant did not have a risk management plan, which is required for companies that store a certain amount of hazardous chemicals.

2. Ignored Whistleblowing and Insufficient Oversight

Three days after the accident, a whistleblower came forward and talked to WFAA about his concerns about the facility: Eric Kelly, who worked at the plant in the summer of 2011, found a number of concerning practices at the plant, such as chemical overflow being caught in trash cans and dumped into the central dumpster, reusing uncleaned hoses and pumps, or stocking dangerous chemicals with little or no containment system. In addition to this “daily disregard for simple safety measures,” Kelly also reported that an emergency action plan did not seem to exist, nor was there a containment system that would have been able to avoid the swift spread of liquid chemicals as seen during the accident.

Even though he documented his observations with photographs, his complaints were dismissed by his superiors and Kelly was asked to quit his job after only six weeks of employment. In an interview with WFAA, Scott Pendery, the owner of Magnablend, denied any knowledge of complaints from employees and claimed that he always put safety first.

Two weeks after the accident, it also turned out that the chemical plant had had insufficient inspections and that the sprinkler system, which failed when the fire started, was old and “possibly inadequate.” The company moved to the building in 2008 and the sprinkler system never got updated, nor had it ever been analyzed for its efficiency. The investigation into the burnt down facility also brought forth that the sister plant “with even more dangerous chemicals,” located in the north end of the same town, “has not been officially inspected by the Waxahachie Fire Department since June 2007.”

The smoke cloud

3. Not an Unforeseeable Accident but a “Normal” Accident

To be fair, the Magnablend plant had operated safely for over 30 years, and this fire was the only large-scale accident. However, as with nuclear power plants or any other complex high-risk technology, one single accident on that scale is already one too many. According to WFAA, Magnablend’s owner Pendery “said his plant had all of the proper safety features and permits, just no antidote for such an unforeseen accident.”

One known antidote is good and comprehensive risk management. As the Ellis County Right to Know group of concerned citizens discovered, Maganblend actually did have a risk management plan, dated 7/6/2009. Update (1/17/12): However, this risk management plan was was for a different Magnablend facility in Waxahachie (the one referred to as “liquid facility” on Sterrett Road). In that plan, the company claims “Although Magnablend, Inc. maintains the storage of hydrofluoric acid and anhydrous ammonia on site, the employees are trained and knowledgeable about the chemicals and their hazards and the facility is equipped to handle an accidental release so that if such an event occurs it will not pose a threat to any offsite receptors and will not have any offsite impacts.” This claim was obviously falsified by the devastating fire on Oct 3, 2011.

Moreover, the worst case scenario  in this risk management plan is based on a compartmentalizing approach, in which the rupture of  a storage tank for highly hazardous chemicals, such as anhydrous ammonia or hydrofluoric acid, is assumed as the maximum credible accident. A description of the worst case scenario for anhydrous ammonia is not provided, instead the plan references the onsite data at the chemical plant (EPA Risk Management Program Executive Summary). But the extended executive summary, later in the document, states about hydrofluoric acid: “For the worst case scenario, Magnablend, Inc. assumed that one full drum of hydrofluoric acid was accidentally released into the building.” And it concludes: ” Because all of the free liquids will be kept in containment, contact with the chemical from anyone outside of the facility is extremely unlikely.”

Compartmentalizing and downplaying of risks is not unusual, and it seems that EPA requirements (which the Magnablend risk management plan followed) allow for a systematic underestimation of possible risks due to the exclusive focus on isolated components. However, since Charles Perrow’s classic work Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies (1984), it is known that the real risk is not the single failure of an isolated, well contained component, but the uncontrollable interaction of tightly coupled elements in a complex system.

The description of the causes of the fire support this view. First, an experiment with a small amount of certain waste-water treatment chemicals was conducted. Since this experiment was successful, it was repeated on a much larger scale. The chemical reaction created unexpectedly large amounts of steam that quickly filled up the building and then caught fire, apparently from a spark. A WFAA report described what followed: “The steam off of the reactions may have contained hydrogen, which helped the fire spread quickly. The sprinkler system was overwhelmed and there was no chemical foam available to the workers to douse the flames. On top of that, there were propane tanks on site and those exploded.”

This matches perfectly Perrow’s definition of a system accident, where an initial isolated failure (the unexpected strength of the chemical reaction) leads to multiple follow-up failures that interact in unanticipated ways: The large amounts of steam not only decreased visibility and orientation, it also contained highly explosive hydrogen, which only needed a random spark to combust. The hydrogen also led to a quick spread of the fire and the failure of the dated sprinkler system. The lack of foam extinguishers as a back-up system added another unexpected (though avoidable!) failure. And finally, the propane tanks, close enough to the fast spreading fire, provided another accelerator for the accident. The lack of a proper containment system for the facility as a whole — as opposed to containment systems for individual storage tanks — then also made possible that the rivers of burning chemicals could engulf the firetruck and move past the premises of Magnablend into nearby culverts and ponds.

4. Another Aspect of the Fracking Industry

Much attention has been paid to the danger of water and air contamination due to shale-gas drilling and fracking. The disposal of fracking wastewater in injection wells has also come under increasing scrutiny, particularly since the occurrence of earthquakes and seismic shifts related to the injections.

The story of this accident shows that our attention must be extended to the production and transportation of fracking fluids, too. Large amounts of fracking chemicals need to be produced, mixed, and shipped to often remote fracking sites. Every step of the process has its own risks and unintended side-effects. A chemical plant can unexpectedly go up in flames. Tank trucks, holding between 5500 and 9000 gallons, can easily get into accidents.

It comes as no surprise that the rebuilding of the burnt-down Magnablend plant has not been welcomed by the residents of the proposed location, not least because it would be right next to a dairy farm. But they also worry about their own health. WFAA quotes Waxahachie resident Dave Vance saying: “[we] have complained about health problems and Magnablend has totally ignored that (…). They continue saying that air and water was safe and we’ve got records from the TCEQ that show otherwise.”

1. Visit the Facebook site Magnablend Waxahachie: Community *Right To Know* for more information
2. Watch the video Magnablend to Risk Domestic Food Supply


3 responses to “Production of Fracking Chemicals: A Cautionary Tale

  1. Really interesting. Might have been nice if that whistleblower had come to the media before the accident, instead of after the fact. Frankly, he had already been fired so I don’t see what he had to lose.

    • That’s a really good question. I tried to figure out how to contact him when I worked on the article, but had no success. He may have just given up after he got fired and maybe even thought that his concerns were undue. Then, when the accident happened, he may have seen his concerns rectified and talked to the media about it… // Bernhard

  2. Pingback: Who Poisons Whom With Chemicals? | Slow Down Fracking in Athens County (SD-FRAC)

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