NEPERA—MORE THAN A COMMUNICATIONS FIASCO
Michael R. Edelstein, Ph.D.
President, Orange Environment, Inc.
The recent release of pyridine or a related compound from the Nepera plant in Harriman merely underscores what has been obvious for some time. This aging facility, despite some serious efforts and investments by the owners, cannot operate within the margin of safety that the situation demands.
The need for this margin is marked by the confluence of Rts. 17, 31 and 6 with the New York State Thruway, the Port Jervis line rail station, the proximate Village of Harriman and other residential areas, the adjacent expanded Woodbury Common, the expanding Interchange Commerce Center, the in-process Harriman Commons, and the massive Monroe-Woodbury School District complex of schools, all at the base of a mountain prone to air inversions. Human “sensitive receptors” to air pollution are both numerous and helpless in this context.
Orange Environment has been ably represented by our Vice President Toby Schack on the Citizens Advisory Committee formed several years ago after a major accident at Nepera. We have worked with others to create proper contingency plans, monitoring programs and protective steps to try to provide as many safeguards as are possible in the situation.
The recent release showed how difficult it is to offer even the protection promised by such efforts. Serious delays occurred in Nepera’s notification of authorities and school officials. The extent and duration of the release was not initially evident and its was not as detectable on site as it was in the community, leading to early underestimation of the problem. School officials grappled with an impossible decision of how to define an uncertain situation. Meanwhile, schools did not fully comply with expected actions. The initial decision was to lock down the schools with the kids in place so that they would not have to go outside. Some classrooms held their kids but kept windows open and exposures occurred and odors filled buildings. There were problems making sure that all children were released properly. Some came home to locked houses or had to wonder the community for shelter—not desirable during an air chemical release. A car accident by evacuated students underscored the confusion and tension of the event. While no one was hurt, it was evident that injuries and fatalities could result from an evacuation event even if no harmful chemical exposures occurred. The costs and potential consequences of such evacuations can easily lead officials to be reluctant to commit early on to protective actions.
Given these events, much of the concern after the accident has involved the failed communication evident in the response. However, as important as this concern for communication is, it falls short of the real issue that few seem willing to address—risk. I have not as yet received a promised risk assessment from Nepera, but it is clear that we have so far been lucky that here-to-fore released chemicals are relatively (although not completely) low in hazard, even if noxious. What happens if somehow there is a release of much more hazardous chemicals such as benzene or, God forbid, anhydrous ammonia, from the site. In the latter case, communications might be moot because large scale deaths and injuries could have already occurred by the time any response was possible.
Nepera’s parent company is well aware of its liability. Officials, residents, parents, students, commuters, employees and shoppers have much at stake in an open and direct conversation about the “worst case scenarios” associated with this plant and what they mean. Orange Environment seeks to help convene the relevant agencies, officials and citizens to have such a conversation. The fact that Nepara’s permits under the Clean Air Act are up for renewal provides a potential context for examining the risks associated with this facility and whether they are adequately mitigated by even improved levels of communication. Nobody wants to see local jobs, tax revenues and a good corporate citizen driven off. But neither do we want to see what the worst case scenario actually looks like.
We can act now for, later on, communication may not really matter.