Why so close? Chemical plants and oil refineries, and water.

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Chemicals, oil, and water are linked eternally in a faustian bargain. In order to produce most chemicals, and all petroleum products, it is necessary to have access to immense quantities of water. Thus, the infrastructure for these industries is found in the low-lying areas alongside of rivers, and within the inlets and bays along the coastline of the oceans. When the inevitable floods happen, the potential for releases of chemicals and oil, and even explosions as seen in Crosby Texas this week can and will occur.

Why is there this dependence on huge quantities of water? In order to make many chemical reactions occur, it is necessary to provide heat. That heat normally comes in the form of steam. Steam is also used to enable separations of chemicals through distillation. The tall columns seen in chemical plants and refineries are usually distillation towers, where products and wastes are drawn off at various levels in the towers. These products must then be condensed, and they are condensed in heat exchangers with water being used to cause the vapors to condense. The chemicals and the water don’t mix in these condensers, since they are found on opposite sides of the heat exchangers. But immense quantities of water are used in heat exchangers, and the water is thus warmed, reducing its effectiveness in condensing and cooling chemicals.

The water used in heat exchangers and condensers may only be used once. This is single-use water and it is necessary to have a large volume of water nearby in order to release the warmed water without adverse ecological impact. If the water is reused, then it is necessary to cool the water back down in order to use it again. This is done in cooling towers, and you normally will see the plumes of water vapor coming up from these large structures, where water is cooled through evaporation as it drips on down through the wooden framework of a cooling tower. Cooling towers increase the concentration of salts in the water, since a portion of the water is lost to evaporation and may have many cycles through the cooling tower before being discarded to a body of water.

Since it takes lots of energy to move large quantities of water, and lots of money to run long lengths of piping, most chemical plants are found just adjacent to the water. They are sited so that they are above the normal flooding levels, but when unprecedented flooding happens like with Harvey, they are supremely vulnerable to damage from water. In my career in the chemical industry, I worked at two plants (in Tennessee and in West Virginia) that were situated along rivers. The plant in Tennessee did have problems long after I left when flooding from the Mississippi caused backwater flooding that buried part of the plant, which was situated on a smaller feeder stream. Fortunately, it didn’t cause the release of chemicals, and was not a large problem, but it highlights how close proximity to water comes with its own set of risks.

I have been to plants in Texas that were totally inundated from the floods this week. One along the end of the Houston Ship channel, that immense concentration of oil and chemical plants along Texas 225. The other was in Beaumont, situated right next to the marshlands leading to the Gulf of Mexico. The facilities at these plants are designed to be safe and to be able to be shut down without causing chemical releases. But. There are limits to what you can do and still be safe. When you have feet of floodwaters covering a site, then the power of the water can do things that cannot be controlled. Water can erode pipe supports, and the dangling piping will bend and break, releasing the contents of the lines. Floodwaters can shove vehicles and boats into pumps and piping, causing them to break. Even in the normal process of shutting down facilities, excess venting and flaring of flammable and toxic compounds can happen, which can cause irritation and concern among the neighbors of these facilities.

Just as there is a faustian bargain between these facilities and water, there is another relationship that comes into play. That is the relationship between the workers and their families, and their proximity to the plant. Very often the workers for these facilities are found in the neighborhoods surrounding the plants. Entire generations of workers have grown up nearly in the shadow of the towers of refineries and chemical plants. This is especially true in the region around the Houston Ship Channel. The towns of La Porte, Pasadena, Deer Park, and Baytown have a symbiotic relationship with their industrial behemoths. Only a single road separates the residential areas from the properties of the oil and chemical companies. Quite literally, the companies and the towns are all in the same boat at times like now.

The plant that had the explosions this week was a different type of chemical plant. This plant was not adjacent to a large body of water. What it manufactured was a chemical that is essential in the manufacture of plastics, but by its own nature, it was extremely unstable. In my chemical plant in West Virginia, we also manufactured a similar material. These materials are known as polymerization initiators, and they make it possible for chemicals like ethylene (two carbons bound by double bonds) to react with each other, and form long chains that we know as plastics (polyethylene). The materials we produced in West Virginia also have to be kept refrigerated or they will grow unstable and catch fire. Part of the lore of the plant involved the time when the manufacturing line for this material had a problem, and the temperature rose to the point where the chemical decomposed and ignited. That fire was remembered long after everyone who worked during the fire had left the plant. What made the situation in Texas worse, was that the organic peroxides they made are not only flammable but are explosive when they decompose.

Part of the manufacturing process for chemical plants involves process hazards reviews. In these reviews, the participants go through a systematic review of the inherent hazards of the process and facilities, and determine if there were adequate safeguards to prevent incidents and injuries. Sometimes a significant hazard is discovered, one that had not been previously considered, and then the management of the plant faces the task of getting the fix done to remove the hazard. Since it takes time to implement new facilities (and get the authorization to spend the money to build facilities), normally there are administrative controls that are put in place to temporarily mitigate the risks. But even though I participated in many process hazards reviews in my career, I do not remember ever having considered the case of having my plant submerged in multiple feet of floodwater, and having no way to get anything working for days at a time. I imagine that the chemical and refining industries will have to go through substantial work trying to come up with new safeguards that will prevent releases and explosions such as are being seen in Texas now.

It Was Totally Worth It!

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Photo courtesy of Sky and Telescope web site.

It was about 10:30 on Monday morning that we saw our first eclipse tailgaters parked in the ubiquitous church parking lots and also along dirt and gravel roads leading out into farm fields of soybeans and cotton. We were cruising down US 601, heading to Orangeburg, South Carolina, and my adult children were still berating me for getting them up at 6:30 because I was afraid of the gridlock that could have covered all of the roads south out of Charlotte. Traffic going down into the zone of totality was non-existent, and there were no backups anywhere.

Eclipse tailgating! That would have been a good idea. Groups had their shade canopies and lawn chairs, most folks had coolers, and some had even brought grills and other food items out to enjoy before the big event Monday afternoon. As for us, we had made a stop at Mr. Bunky’s Market on US 378 east of Columbia. This was quite an eclectic place, two gas pumps keeping sentinel outside, an interior with a second floor that was part antique store, part flea market. The main floor held everything from PVC pipe fittings to burlap bags advertising 50 pounds of Mr. Bunky’s Marijuana. There was a restaurant on the side that we didn’t go to, but we did get our commemorative eclipse t-shirts with the palmetto and sun phases on the back. Mr. Bunky’s was my fall-back viewing location if traffic was horrible, but since we were so far ahead of schedule, leaving this store by 10:15, we went on to my primary objective of Orangeburg.

Thank heavens for Google Earth and Google maps. Using those tools, I could scope out the entire route. We made it to Orangeburg by 11 AM and stopped at the FATZ restaurant near the intersection of I-26. They were advertising their eclipse party, and had 100 pairs of glasses to give away, but we didn’t need any since we were well equipped. After a leisurely meal and an appropriate beverage, we adjourned out to the back lot of the restaurant, where a few trees offered shade. We set up our lawn chairs and awaited the celestial events. Clouds were blessedly few, but still could have interfered.

Initial contact for us was at 1:14. Within a minute or two, it was evident that there was contact with a dark form just touching the rim of the sun. I started to take photos every 15 minutes of the ambient light, hoping to see the transition from light to dark after the eclipse was over. The word of the day was inexorable, as the moon continued its steady incursion over the sun’s surface. Still, there was no observable difference in the light that we saw.

A family in a van who had driven up from Charleston parked near us, and set up their display tools. Besides the glasses everyone sported, they also had brought a colander, a box with a pinhole for observation, and the best touch, a piece of cardboard with 8 20  2017 punched out with small holes. When they held that cardboard up, the second white piece of poster board held the image of the sun with an increasing amount of black displacing the light from the sun. They described the image as the pac-man sun, and that was very appropriate. They kept taking pictures of the date image as the eclipse progressed.

After about an hour, you got the sense that the light was changing slightly. Difficult to describe, but the light began to seem a bit fragile. I started taking pictures every 5 minutes at this time. The change in the light kept coming, and as it started to visibly darken, the light had a bluish tint. I thought about that, and it’s my belief that we normally associate sunrise and sunset with a reddish tint. That’s partially due to the longer path that the light takes through the atmosphere, and it tends to scatter the light and emphasize the redder wavelengths. But with an eclipse, the sun is shining straight down, and it is more of the blue of the sky that you sense as you head towards this unnatural dusk.

By the time you got to 10 minutes before totality, it became noticeably dark. The parking lot lights began to flicker on and tried to fight this unexpected dark. Still, I did not see any bird activity, nor did I hear crickets start their evening chorus. We were near woods that led towards a railroad track, so we could have seen these things, but I didn’t notice this happening. The tailgaters out in the country probably did.

As totality neared, everyone was craning their necks up with their eclipse glasses watching the last thin remnant of the crescent sun disappearing. We were not blessed with the brilliant images of Bailey Beads, or a diamond display as the last rays vanished behind the moon. Then, as the eclipse glasses grew dark, we removed them and saw…..

Totality! The pearly glow of the corona extended out about one solar diameter from the surface on all sides. It shimmered with white-hot ferocity around the black disk of the moon. At about 4 or 5 o’clock on the disk, there was just the faintest touch of orange extending over the moon’s surface. We actually saw a solar prominence with the naked eye. I had tried to take some pictures with my cell phone camera, but looking at the images later, it was obvious that the corona was too strong to image properly.  I didn’t want to look away from the corona, but forced myself to briefly look around at the horizon. Light shone faintly in all directions as the sky outside of the zone of totality stayed illuminated by the remnant of the sun.

It is impossible to fully convey the image of the corona. It was the single most incredible image I’ve ever seen myself. Dazzling. Irresistible. I can see why some people become eclipse chasers, willing to spend whatever it takes to experience this image repeatedly in their lifetime. And then, it was over. Sunlight peeked over the rim of the moon, and it became necessary to put the eclipse glasses back on. Cheers erupted from the crowd as we all knew that the best part of the show was over, but we all reveled in the experience.

I remember back in 1979 during the last eclipse, I was working at a chemical plant. There they had welding goggles that we were able to use to look at the sun, and I remember using the pinhole method to see the image of the sun projected and showing the portion swallowed up by the sun. But for anyone who questioned whether it is worth it to get inside of the zone of totality, it is totally worth it. It is only during the last few minutes when the solar illumination is about 2% or less that you really sense the difference in light level, and seeing the corona is just incredible and is an image that I will take with me through the rest of my life. Make your plans now for 2024, because it is worth it.

After totality, everybody started packing up. My older son was going on down the road to Folly Beach for camping, so we said our farewells. My younger son came back with us to the hotel to decompress from the event. We encountered much more traffic on the return trip than we did on the way into the zone of totality. Still, traffic didn’t prevent us from seeing, and no clouds obscured the entire time of totality. And I got to share this incredible experience with my whole family. It just didn’t get any better than this.

The Shadow of Moon’s Smile

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It’s coming! An event that long ago showed up as a dream marker upon my imagined future life trail. The eclipse of August 21, 2017. As a child I was fanatical about all things related to the cosmos, and I devoured all of the books I could about astronomy and cosmology. I confess that I learned I was a nerd even before the word was invented. How many 2nd graders do you think had a strong conviction on the then current scientific controversy on whether the universe was the result of a big bang, or whether the steady state theory was the explanation for the observations of astronomers. I was quite firmly on the side of the big bang. This was a year before the discovery of the background microwave radiation that was the echo of the big bang, and there were indeed two schools of thought on the explanation for the observed universe. Being proven right on the big bang led to many more theories that I expounded upon during my childhood.

Since eclipses are known, predictable events, way back in the 1960’s I realized that if I was alive in 2017, a total solar eclipse would happen right over my head in Lincoln, Nebraska. That was the first total solar eclipse that I would be able to attend without travel to a foreign country (and back in elementary school that seemed to be so far out of reach). Now fast forward over 50 years, and I am now in the position of nervous anticipation of the event of August 21. I have our hotel reservation near the band of totality. Our two sons are planning to join us for the final journey to the strip of land that will experience darkness in the middle of the day.

Two things cause me nervousness in anticipating the event. First is traffic on the morning of the 21st. I will be 70 miles outside of the band of totality. I’m avoiding the interstate like the plague, but there will still be thousands who will follow the road that I will take, slowing our progress. I will probably antagonize my family by insisting that we get up and leave much, much sooner than we really need to, just to make sure that we get there in time. Ideally we want to go about 130 miles to our preferred viewing site, but the absolute must is to make it to the band of totality.

The second thing that causes me anxiousness? The weather. We will be in central South Carolina, and the sky conditions in this part of the south are iffy at best, both historically and in the extended weather forecast. I can say to myself that if clouds obscure the view, at least I will experience the coming of sudden darkness, followed by an instant morning, But that will never substitute for the absolute thrill of seeing the corona emerge, shining eerily over the surface of the darkened side of the moon. It would be extra special if there were a solar flare at the time that you could see, but just seeing the physical manifestation of the solar wind will be awesome.

Well, you pay your money and you take your chances. South Carolina offered the only opportunity for my entire family to attend this event, so we will be going in a spirit of optimism, rather than pessimism.

If we miss it this go around, there is a subsequent eclipse coming up in 2024 that bisects the country again. I hope to be able to travel to it as well, but the first shot I have will be my best hope.