Pollution Control By Eliminating Releases

I am particularly offended by conventional discussions of polluted environments. The underlying assumption seems to be that you can either accept and complain about pollution, or you can regulate it. I prefer to eliminate it at its source by better design, even if it costs some more.

I once ran a small chemical company. We had chemical equipment that mostly contained its chemical contents but of course leaked and escaped as we worked. We existed on the bare, far margins of the chemical industry. Most chemical industry uses large vessels, large piping for connections, large valves to control movement and many other features. The equipment is sized and designed to mostly work pretty well, to send the chemicals where they are needed through piping that works 99.99% properly.

Once in a while, any equipment will leak or break. A vessel can burst, or spring a leak. A connection to piping can come apart. A valve, that depends on seals, will begin to leak. There are many ways for chemicals to inadvertently escape. If they volatilize into the air, then they are gone. If they remain on the ground, a high pressure hose can send them into a floor drain and thence to a waterway. Occasionally (but too often) a vessel will burst, fall over or be breached and many tons of a chemical may be released, such as the escape of the very poisonous methyl isocyanate from a Union Carbide factory in Bhopal, India in 1984 that killed perhaps 16,000 people and injured a half million. Not all releases reach numbers like this, but all are dangerous and often fatal, sometimes resulting in explosions or fires. Can anything be done to prevent these accidents?

The usual answer is to make marginal improvements in the design of piping and storage, but beneath it all is the impervious belief that accidents will always happen so we need to accept that. Which, on one level, is true. But how bad an accident do we need to accept? What if we could eliminate 90% of the severity of the accidents and releases? Could this reduce the impact of these events to where they were rare and completely unexpected, instead of a constant feature of our daily lives?

I believe the answer lies, as always, in the design of our reactions, processes and equipment. If equipment is designed to save money and assure profit, then we get one result. If agree that releases MUST be avoided, and equipment is designed to make sure that releases are controlled as well as can be, that will require a different design.

Not all gigantic releases come from accidents. Grist, in 2023 released a study of purposeful releases of many thousands of pounds of chemicals that the USEPA allows to be purposely released into the air because the chemical company says they need to. They may be changing a line, shutting down a plant in advance of a coming hurricane or any other reason. If they say they need to have an “Emission Exemption” they can generally emit any amount of any chemical into the air without a permit or oversight. It is counted as a one-time event but no one is stopping them from repeating the emission over and over. This is a loophole in the emission regulations – a loophole you could drive a truck through. Read the article. Of course the people living in the surroundings (usually minorities) are expected to just breathe the noxious air for a few days and not complain about the practice. I take note that the quantities are so large that it is easy to imagine placing the chemicals into a storage vessel instead of into the air. But that might cost a few extra dollars.

Not all releases are as dramatic as Bhopal. Recently an article in the Yale News reported on a project by an undergraduate to avoid and reduce all of the releases of fluorocarbons (ozone destroyers) from refrigerating equipment found everywhere at Yale (and elsewhere). The work is in its infancy, but merely identifying the source of so much atmosphere destroying emissions is a start that will surely lead to major changes. Even now, it is clear that one of the answers will be to radically change the design of refrigeration equipment. Instead of saving money by externalizing the damage done to our planet, new designs may be more expensive but they will not allow the slow escape of refrigerants. Methods of filling refrigerants will not lightly accept small releases, but will account for every gram. Read article.

I once had the chance to avoid a huge assault on the atmosphere by the preventing the release of about three thousand pounds of Freon. Read report.