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Georgia Regulators Investigate Chemical Company’s Toxic Releases

July 23, 2008

By Rob Pavey, Savannah Morning News, Ga.

Jul. 22–AUGUSTA — One of Georgia’s largest chemical plants is under scrutiny by state regulators over its acknowledged under-reporting of millions of pounds of toxic releases dating back to at least 2003.

Experts are unsure how the releases would have affected air quality or human health, and state officials are deciding whether to order fines or corrective measures.

DSM Chemicals North America, based in Augusta, uses large amounts of cyclohexane in the manufacture of the raw material for nylon.

According to documents obtained through Georgia’s Open Records Act, the company reported to regulators that it released 1.2 million pounds of the flammable vapor from 2003 to 2006, when it actually released 10.8 million pounds — accounting for more than a third of the cyclohexane released by all industries in the nation during that time.

The chemical can cause dizziness, nausea, dry skin and other ailments and is categorized as a volatile organic compound that contributes to smog, ground-level ozone and respiratory problems, according to the U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration.

In general, the chemical is only mildly irritating to the eyes and mucous membranes and skin and lingers in the atmosphere for only a few days.

Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division raised questions about the plant’s emissions in 2007 after inspectors evaluated performance results provided by DSM. EPD asked “if emissions in prior years were under-reported, if there were excessive emissions and if previous compliance certificates were accurate.”

In response, company officials said they thought a flare on the factory’s smokestack was incinerating at least 95 percent of the excess cyclohexane, but it wasn’t — and the problem apparently escaped detection for several years.

On July 5, 2007 — three weeks after receiving EPD’s notice of violation — DSM filed amended emissions reports with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The reports acknowledged under reporting both emissions of cyclohexane and a related chemical, cyclohexanol.

“These revisions are the result of DSM’s recent discovery of inadvertent data quality errors that led to the recalculation of cyclohexane and cyclohexanol emissions from two process units,” wrote Beth Connell, DSM’s safety, health and environmental manager.

Last fall, the company invested more than $1 million in equipment to ensure the destruction of chemical vapors, Connell said.

Currently, DSM is in compliance with its operating permits, and the new equipment installed to correct the problems has been tested, said Lewis Hays, an environmental compliance engineer with EPD.

“At this point we have no reason to believe their tests are in error because they used an outside testing firm. Those tests indicated they were destroying at least 98 percent of the (volatile organic compound) emissions,” Hays said.

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