This week’s chemical release ended a long incident-free string at Elmira’s Chemtura Canada Co. One officials there would undoubtedly like to have seen continue.
The BLE 25, a compound to prevent rubber from oxidizing, that rained down on an area near the chemical plant was the first notable incident since a fire in the spring of 2006. Complaints about odours have become all but nonexistent. It’s been a fairly smooth ride in the interim.
While the company has been through the process many times in the past, there’s still much to be learned, apparently. Chemtura alerted the provincial and regional spill centres in short order, but neglected to inform Woolwich Township until some four and a half hours later. Neighbours weren’t kept in the loop, and the delay in notifying the township meant the Community Alert Network (CAN) system wasn’t implemented until about 10 p.m., almost seven hours after the chemical release.
Township officials were understandably miffed. Dealing with the impact of the incident and resultant cleanup are the top priorities, but the municipality is already pressing the company to explain how the communication process broke down.
The spill appears to have been minor, with no perceived immediate health threats, but officials are pondering what might have happened if the incident had not been so benign.
In addition to determining what went wrong such that the chemical made its way into the environment, Chemtura will have to review its communication strategy. Again, because this isn’t the first time the company has been taken to task on that issue.
To be fair, there have been improvements. But given the quiet times of the last few years, a stretch in which management has been all but invisible, there’s a chance things may have become a little complacent.
The company isn’t the only one under scrutiny. There have been grumblings about the CAN system, with some in the immediate area of the plant indicating they were never contacted by the automated phone calls that went out.
Township administrators were put in the position of defending their actions, noting the company was responsible for the resultant delay in activating the CAN system.
On the upside, officials have been able to find some soft spots in the communication system during a relatively minor incident. Better to discover the problems in that circumstance rather than in a real emergency.
As previous experience with Chemtura-related incidents have shown, the public isn’t always up to speed with the alert system. During the fire in 2006 and the big explosion two years earlier, many residents disregarded or failed to understand the significance of the warnings, opting instead to go about their business or, more alarming still to officials, to flock down to the site to have a look. If they had encountered a toxic spill instead of something more innocuous, the results could have been devastating.
While the company would have preferred to avoid this week’s incident altogether, the emergency response and communication systems may be improved because of it.