More than three weeks after a volatile gas leak stalled holiday traffic across the Delaware Memorial Bridge and jammed parts of I-95 and the New Jersey Turnpike for seven hours, the new ethylene oxide production facility at Croda’s Atlas Point plant on the Delaware River remains closed, as an investigation continues in hopes of making sure it won’t happen again.
Meanwhile, the United Kingdom-based Croda is shipping the volatile raw material into the 140-acre plant complex in lines of railcars to keep its other operations running.
Croda had initially held out hope of being able to restart the ethanol-to-ethylene oxide unit by now. After an initial review blamed “an incorrect gasket” installed on a pipe for the leak that persuaded local and state emergency crews to ask the Delaware River and Bay Authority for a precautionary shutdown of the bridge, the company on Nov. 27 said it expected to complete “a systematic review” of equipment along the plant’s pipework “over the next two weeks” prior to restarting the ethylene oxide unit safely.
The rest of the 140-acre plant complex, which makes surfactants, has kept running, and none of its 250 workers have been laid off, the company says.
But instead of restarting its new unit to make the volatile raw material on site from common ethanol (the alcohol that gets you drunk), Croda is still shipping in rail tankers full of volatile ethylene oxide, made in the U.S. mostly at plants along the Gulf Coast. Ethylene oxide is explosive; crews sprayed water on the facility and its supply pipes to dissipate it and eliminate the risk of catastrophic fire. The chemical is also considered a carcinogen for people regularly exposed to it over time.
The company and local fire officials initially said nobody was injured in the accident. But Croda later told neighbors five employees had “sought medical observation,” according to a letter obtained by reporter Josephine Peterson and published in the News Journal newspaper.
It was to avoid the risks associated with long-distance shipping, after its local source of ethylene oxide — the former Sunoco ethylene plant in Marcus Hook — shut down after a fire, that Croda in 2016 announced plans to build its own $170 million ethylene oxide production facility at Atlas Point. Delaware officials gave the company $2.9 million in hiring incentives, plus tax benefits they won’t describe, to help persuade Croda to expand the plant at Atlas Point, instead of moving it to Texas.
Asked why the unit was still down more than three weeks later, marketing director Cara Eaton sent a statement Dec. 18 in which the company re-characterized the recent work, which it had previously called a “systematic review,” as only an “initial investigation,” and added that "at this stage, we have no targeted date for completion.”
Croda and state officials may have more to say at a planned meeting “to discuss Croda’s Nov. 25 accidental ethylene oxide release,” at a meeting run by the state Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control and Delaware Emergency Management Agency, at 6 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 20, at McCullough Middle School, 20 Chase Ave., New Castle, Del.
Attendees will include DNREC Secretary Shawn M. Garvin, Homeland Security Secretary Rob Coupe, DEMA Director A.J. Schall, and state and county emergency, fire and public health officials, as well as Croda officials.
Delaware officials of both parties have long supported the chemical industry for its well-paid jobs, lucrative local contracts, and tax payments. Production workers at Croda are represented by the United Steelworkers labor union, successor to the old Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers.
Croda says it increased total employment from 215 to 250 when it opened the ethylene oxide plant earlier this year. A chemical plant has been on the site since 1937, before the bridges were built. The complex was previously a headquarters for its earlier owner, Uniqema, whose name remains atop the mostly vacant office building north of the plant toward the section of I-295, which connects the bridges to I-95 and to the New Jersey Turnpike.