Getting Serious about Safety

In any industry, an accident is a serious issue. More serious are repeated accidents, such as three biodiesel plant fires within six months, one which ended fatally. It is time for the industry to get serious about enforcing safety code compliance.
By Anduin Kirkbride McElroy | September 01, 2006
Despite biodiesel's status as a safe, nontoxic substance, the production process can be dangerous and should be treated like any other chemical process-with utmost precaution and care. Hazardous materials, such as methanol, can leave plants vulnerable to fire and explosion if the plants are not properly engineered and operated. In this industry, skimping on employee safety training or explosion-proof equipment could have disastrous or even lethal consequences.

Though these cautions may seem elementary, they are unfortunately necessary. Three different fires that occured in biodiesel production or storage facilities between February and July demonstrate the potential consequences. Of course, safety standards are not new to the chemical industry. Most experts agree that the standards already in place are sufficient to maintain a totally safe production facility, as is evidenced by numerous biodiesel plants in production.

The safety issue is more of a matter of shortcuts being taken out of ignorance or to cut time and cost, according to Rocky Costello, professional engineer with R.C. Costello & Associates Inc., a design engineering firm. He notes that safety is most likely to be compromised in smaller, start-up plants in which entrepreneurs are trying to get into the industry at minimal costs. "Compliance costs money," he says.

"There will be future safety incidents unless buyers start asking the right questions," Costello says. The questions he suggests asking address code compliance both in preconstruction and operation (see sidebar). Because it is a relatively simple chemical process, he acknowledges the temptation to cut costs on design. However, he emphasizes that it is necessary to hire qualified, knowledgeable engineers. "Any technology can be made safe if engineered properly," Costello says. The additional cost for proper engineering and equipment will pay off-especially in the face of human error. "To correct a problem plant costs more than to design it right the first time," he says.

Costello says that the effects of human error could be less serious if everything is built to code. For example, ignited methanol vapors may not have dire consequences if operators have been properly trained and appropriate fire suppression systems are designed into the plant. Clearly, being in compliance with construction codes goes hand-in-hand with compliance of personnel safety training codes.

In the overall manufacturing industry, safety training often gets put down on the hierarchy of importance, according to Robert Weston, safety professional at South Central College, a Minnesota community and technical college. "Past performance is no indicator of future performance," he cautions. "We deal with a lot of reactive, rather than proactive." Too often, an emphasis on safety is established after an accident, he adds.

Weston offers various types of customized training on compliance with Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards. His team offers an assessment of hazards within a facility or process, and then provides training for these hazards, as required by OSHA. "Awareness is what we're looking to raise," he says. "This is our largest hurdle."

Greg Dolan, vice president for communications and policy at the Methanol Institute, gives a similar message as to the importance of education and awareness. "Be aware of the properties of methanol," he says. "Once you're aware of those properties-that it is toxic-and take precautions with handling, it can be a safe and effective fuel for biodiesel production."

Safety as an Industry Priority
Safety is especially compromised with backyard blenders, some of whom use products like blenders and electric drills, potentially creating sparks that could ignite methanol vapors. "This whole thing is just a recipe for disaster," says Paul Bloom, manager of new industrial chemicals at Archer Daniels Midland Co. Safe or not, the backyard blending trend is not losing steam. Because the ingredients are accessible and recipes are exceptionally easy to come by (especially on the Internet), many biodiesel lovers have been born.

Unfortunately, the ease of production detracts from its serious nature. "I'm not sure how much guidance is provided with Internet kits," Dolan says. He notes that his organization gets calls from backyard blenders wondering where to get five gallons of methanol or where to buy feedstock. Dolan says the National Biodiesel Board (NBB) is good about providing training and resources, but he thinks the industry could be more involved. "If you want to see people [produce biodiesel] on an individual or smaller commercial basis, the industry needs to police itself and provide better guidance to these people," Dolan says, adding that a program similar to quality control program BQ-9000 would be helpful.

What the industry has learned from the quality issue is that self-regulation works regardless of production capacity, and a lack of self-regulation could result in overall lost credibility with each new accident. The industry has rallied to make quality a top priority but has left production safety wanting for similar attention. The NBB will be giving more attention to safety at the upcoming National Biodiesel Conference in San Antonio, according to NBB Communications Specialist Amber Thurlo Pearson, a step that demonstrates the recognition of safety as an industry-wide issue.

However, the biodiesel industry has yet to unite with a specific focus on safety, such as a working committee. Such a committee could enforce compliance with codes and act as a forum for exchanging safety suggestions, violations, remediation and investigative reports, as exists in the chemical industry. Uniting to adopt best safety practices will be on par with similar industries. For example, Costello suggests that safety violations, like fires, undergo professional investigations so that the actual cause is identified and then reported to the rest of the industry for overall safety improvements. "The chemical industry does it, the refining industry does it, and we have to do it now, too," Costello says, adding that size is not a factor for other plants in regard to compliance.

Bloom agrees that the biodiesel industry should hold itself to the same standard as any other segment of the chemical industry. "All of these things have to be handled in a professional manner by people who are trained in safe methods in handling different materials," he says. "Just remember that it's a chemical operation. It's no different than if I wanted to go into my garage and start my own chemical company. I can't do that. The [U.S.] EPA would be knocking on my door and asking me for my permit. Biodiesel production should get the same type of treatment."

Anduin Kirkbride McElroy is a Biodiesel Magazine staff writer. Reach her at [email protected] or (701) 746-8385.
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