Greenpeace targets Chicago-area chemical plant


A local chemical plant could endanger more than 1.5 million people, says an environmental advocacy group pressing federal lawmakers to support legislation encouraging plants to adopt safer chemicals.

Non-profit organization Greenpeace says a chemical plant in west suburban Lyons, owned by Pelron Corp., poses an enormous disaster risk. 

A catastrophic release of ethylene oxide gas could result if a terrorist attack or accident struck the plant, says Greenpeace organizer Nicole Granacki.

“People would be put at risk of death or injury within 30 minutes of an attack,” she says.

Midway Airport, nearly 200 schools and four hospitals are within a five-mile radius of the plant, putting occupants in those facilities in grave danger if toxic gas escaped, according to a new Greenpeace analysis focused on Pelron.

Greenpeace's report says the plant’s entire risk zone extends beyond 10 miles, putting more than 1.6 million Southwest Side and near suburban residents at risk.

For this analysis, Greenpeace combed through data from the Environmental Protection Agency, the Environmental Systems Research Institute, the U.S. Geological Survey, and reports by the Center for American Progress and the Congressional Research Service.

Eric Lacey, general manager at Pelron, disputes claims the chemical plant poses a potentially disastrous risk to the surrounding community.

“The findings are false and someone is trying to create a dramatic situation,” Lacey says. “The plant is safe.”

According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, ethylene oxide is a man-made, sweet-smelling, flammable gas that easily dissolves in water. It is primarily used to make ethylene glycol, which is used in making antifreeze and polyester. Small amounts of ethylene oxide are used in agricultural pest control and hospitals often utilize the chemical to sterilize medical equipment, tools and supplies.

Pelron utilizes ethylene oxide — commonly known as oxirane — in large quantities.

Founded in 1945, Pelron has been promoting the many uses of urethane chemistry since. The company uses ethylene oxide for medical chemicals and botanical products, as well as metal working products, flame retardants, flexible or rigid polyurethane foams and urethane catalysts. Some 40 people work at Pelron and the company reports revenue of more than $5 million a year.

Ethylene oxide is both flammable and highly reactive, according to the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety & Health Administration. Acute exposure to gas from the chemical can injure lungs and cause respiratory irritation, induce nausea, headache, vomiting, diarrhea, shortness of breath and cyanosis. Chronic exposure has been linked to cancer, neurotoxicity, reproductive defects and can spur mutagenic changes.

Next month, the House Energy and Commerce Committee will take up legislation (H.R. 2868 and H.R. 3258) that seeks to lessen the consequences of a terrorist attack.

Greenpeace is calling on U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky and Sen. Roland Burris to support legislation that “truly protects communities living in the shadow of high-risk chemical plants” by encouraging them to adopt less-risky substances in their production methods. 

Rush and Schakowsky are members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

“No one believes that determined terrorists will be stopped by fence-line security,” Granacki says. “Risk prevention is the most common sense solution.”

Illinois houses 105 chemical plants that each poses a risk to 10,000 or more Chicago-area residents, according to Greenpeace’s report. The same report notes that at least 287 chemical facilities nationwide have converted to safer soy-based and sugar-based chemicals since 1999, eliminating risks to almost 40 million people. Six of those facilities are in Illinois.

Greenpeace policy analyst Mae Stevens believes soy-based alternatives can substitute ethylene oxide's role in making polyurethane products and additives and help reduce risks at the Pelron plant. 

She says many chemical plants have moved toward chemical substitutes.

“The good news is that nationwide, plants are switching to low-risk substances, eliminating risks. But unfortunately plants are switching so slowly,” says Stevens. “Slowly enough that it would take a fairly long time to eliminate all the risk. [We are] asking Congress to speed up that progress where feasible.”

Neil Blair, a professor in Northwestern University’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, says, “security, or lack thereof, is a major issue at some plants.”

Curtailing risks is complicated, says Blair, and “it is important to note that it will never be possible to remove all risk from chemical plants.”

“One solution is to not have chemical plants near population centers but that doesn't solve the problem where the population has already grown around a plant. In some cases, substitution of less hazardous chemicals for processes will help. This is not a universal option however because there will not be less hazardous alternatives available in all cases,” Blair says. “Limiting quantities of hazardous materials stored on site would contribute to safety, as would plant modernization, up-to-date safety training for workers, improved security measures, a chemical release alert system and public education.”

The Daily News asked Pelron general manager Lacey if his company has considered or will consider switching to less-hazardous chemical alternatives.

Lacey says his company is already involved in “promoting renewable resource products,” such as soy-based and sugar-based substances, and has been for years. 

However, Stevens says Pelron’s risk management plan, filed with the Environmental Protection Agency, reflects that the company promotes these substances but doesn't use them. 

“They do make these alternative chemicals that are safer but they aren’t using them," Stevens says. "That’s not protecting the people in the surrounding community.”

When chemical plants and companies look into chemical alternatives, they are likely to switch over — “but a lot of plants have not looked at them."

“We’ve found that plants that look at the alternatives find that they don’t cost very much and they may even save the plant money,” she says.

The Department of Homeland Security has identified more than 6,000 “high risk” chemical facilities in the country. 

According to Homeland Security, the potential consequence of a successful attack on a facility, the likelihood that an attack on a facility will be successful, and the “intent and capability of an adversary in respect to attacking a facility,” all factor into the department’s assessment of "high risk."