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By localroger in Culture
Sat Jan 19, 2002 at 05:38:10 AM EST
Tags: Technology (all tags)

Dry limestone crunches beneath my feet, and the hot Louisiana sun beats down past huge racks, each an impenetrable maze of plumbing, wiring, and catwalks. The very ground vibrates with a low mechanical hum, the echo of countless motors and pumps. In all the landscape there is no sign of life; not a blade of grass, no birds, not even insects. I might be on Mars for the sterility of it all, except that I can look down one road -- only one! -- and far away, past a chain-link fence and state highway, spy the verdant canopy of a lowland swamp.

There are several hundred places like this in Louisiana alone, where humans have ripped Nature from her mooring in order to plant a testament to practicality and pure engineering. Like demons, they all have different personalities yet are instantly recognizable as members of a single, unique class. Nothing else built by humans is quite like a chemical plant.

All chemical plants are built on a similar model. The "racks" are like reverse play-houses built for the Jolly Green Giant, with steel-mesh floors separated by 20 or 30 feet, sometimes rising 10 or more levels high. The lower levels are accessed by steel-mesh stairs, the higher ones by more stairs or heavy open-cage elevators that are human-rated but really designed for moving equipment. The racks are arranged in blocks like city apartments, separated by streets that usually are named. The racks support holding tanks and reactors which are interconnected by a bewildering maze of plumbing and wired with thousands of sensors and controls. Control rooms may be blockhouses at a distance on the ground or tin shacks high up in the racks, near to the processes they attend.

Welcome to our facility. Drop your pants and bend over.

Before you can see the racks and the plumbing, you have to get in. Southern hospitality notwithstanding, the Plant's first acknowledgement of your merely human existence will be The Sign. It comes in variations but the tone never changes:

By entering this facility you agree that you and your vehicle may be searched at any time. The following safety equipment is REQUIRED for entry into this facility:

  • Hard Hat (approved type)
  • Safety glasses with side shields
  • Chemical goggles
  • Respirator (approved type)
  • Valid safety pass
The following items are not permitted within the facility under any circumstances:
  • Illegal drugs or alcohol
  • Firearms
  • Cigarette lighters
  • Cameras (unless accompanied by pass)
The guard will put his hand on a Bible and swear before all nine billion names of God that the camera ban is to prevent industrial espionage, but few of these places really have any secrets worth stealing. I've always believed the real problem is that they don't want June and Ward finding out what is going on only a few miles from the school, playground, and new subdivision.

Now listen while we tell you how safe you're going to be while you're here.

Before you can get that safety pass, you usually have to take some "training." This will be a little slideshow or video which reveals useful information about how to stay alive and out of the way while you're foraging in the bowels of the Plant.

At Big Chemical Company, Inc., your safety is a top priority. In order to ensure your safety, we need for you to follow a few rules.

  • {usual safety equipment blurb}
  • This map shows the emergency assembly areas at BCC. You should maintain an awareness of the nearest assembly areas.
  • In case of emergency, park your vehicle by the side of the road and leave the keys in the ignition.
  • BCC is equipped with numerous windsocks. In case of emergency note the wind direction and proceed on foot to the nearest assembly area which you can reach by going crosswind from your location.
  • BCC uses [particularly noxious chemical] in its processes. If you smell [perfectly ordinary smell] immediately put on your respirator and proceed crosswind to the nearest assembly area.
  • The BCC siren announces all emergencies. Always be aware of the emergency code for your area! For example, here is the sound of an alarm for the [noxious chemical] unloading area:

That's code 3-5-1. You will be issued a card which lists the other [four dozen] such codes in use at BCC. When the emergency has cleared, one long blast will signal that it is safe to return to work:


  • BCC maintains a strict lockout/tagout policy. Never remove a lock or tag from a control yourself. It is your responsibility to remove your own lock or tag from a control when your work is complete. Failure to observe lockout/tagout rules can result in uncontrolled energy releases and/or injury [ed: things going boom and people getting killed]

Pay no attention to the guy behind the curtain, or his wallet.

So you don your hard hat and get your safety card and pull your vehicle through the gate and past the truck scale, following the map of the Plant to the intersection of J street and 3rd Avenue. It's now, if you have made a habit of flipping through the Grainger catalog, that you will start adding up how much it cost to build the place. And you'll quickly run out of digits in your mental calculator as you do so.

Industrial equipment is fabulously expensive compared to consumer goods, and here you have an entire city of fabulously expensive industrial crap. The budget for valves alone will be millions of dollars. Add in a few tanks (each of which cost more than a typical residential house) and the sensors and wiring stainless-steel piping and energy utilization and it's very easy to reach the US$100,000,000 mark and start getting dizzy. It's not unusual for a Plant to cost more than $1 billion, and if you have the misfortune to work on a machine that's at a bottleneck in their production you're likely to hear some variant of this:

Well, son, you take all the time you need to fix that, but just bear in mind that we're losing $400,000 an hour while this line is down.

OOOOOH, what's that SMELL?

It's impossible to keep volatile chemicals completely contained, and most Plants have a distinctive smell. In some the smell is oily and sulphurous, in others sharp and acidic; the truly terrifying Plants are the ones that don't smell at all. No smell doesn't mean there's nothing in the air, it just means that you don't get any warning that there is.

Some Plants have pandemic corrosion problems. Chemicals eat away at the concrete foundations, they eat away at the steel mesh so there are dangerous holes in the rack scaffolding, and they eat holes in the employees' skin which are passed off as "that damn rash." I have seen type 316 stainless steel (which is a better grade than anything you have in your kitchen) turn brown with rust in a matter of weeks.

Other places are so spotlessly clean that they are more worrisome than the overtly dirty ones. One local Plant has a density of safety and, interestingly, anti- industrial-espionage signage that reminds one of the adverts on a NASCAR racer. In the obligatory safety video you are reminded that

Here at BCC we work with [omigod] which reacts violently on contact with water or air. WARNING TO WOMEN OF CHILD-BEARING AGE: [omigod] is a powerful teratogen, and if you are or might be pregnant you MUST consult with a Plant nurse before entering operating areas where [omigod] is handled.

I propose Localroger's Law of Plant Safety: The more safety notices you see in a place, the less safe the place is.

Plants take pride in their safety records because safety is so hard to achieve, but it's a rare thing to see the "days since last lost-time accident" sign in front of any industrial facility with four digits. Industrial accidents happen all the time and unless they claim multiple lives or spill out beyond the perimeter fence, they aren't news.

Unbearable Sameness of Being

Plants don't win architecture awards. The one concession to aesthetics which some Plants make is that they are located on oversized tracts of land, surrounded by berms of earth and trees, so as to be as invisible as possible. On a more practical level this also reduces the inevitable damage if something fall down go boom. However, people like to live close to their workplaces and even when they are located in the middle of nowhere, Plants have a magnetic attraction which tends to cause towns to form around them.

A small percentage of Plants will try to show off by having a really fine administration building. Since these places never build enough offices this monument will often be surrounded by "temporary" office space in the form of double-wide trailers, most so old that the floors are going soft and the roofs leaking. I've been into nuclear power Plants where the all-important radiation and safety screening is done in this kind of housing.

In the working areas of the Plant, there is no consideration at all. Functionality determines form. Color may be used to indicate danger or access restrictions, but is mostly dictated by process needs. Bare metal rules the day. The layout may encode those valuable trade secrets you're warned about when they "borrow" your camera, but the basic language of tanks, pipes, valves, pump motors, racks, wiring trays, and whatnot never varies. If the control room is a blockhouse, worry. There is a reason it's not in a tin shack closer to the reactors.

You will probably be there to work on something -- there are few other reasons for a human to ever enter such a place. The component, module, process, or machine you're there to manage will exist on a spiderweb of support and dependent functionality. No matter at what scale your responsibility lies, you will manage something that eventually merges into an impenetrable vastness far beyond your comprehension. Your charges will take power, chemicals, and human input and turn them into different forms of power, different chemicals, and annunciators for humans to read. And you will never be granted more than the most passing explanation of where the inputs came from, or for what the outputs are used.

Inasmuch as functional things are beautiful -- and to some of us they are -- the Plant shyly hides its beauty, cloaking the clarity of its existence behind its own sheer scale. Somewhere there are engineers who understand the processes it marshals, who can tell you every reaction, pressure gradient, transport mechanism, and staging area from the raw materials dump to the rail-car loading barn; these same engineers wouldn't know the purpose of an actual valve or sensor if they tripped over it. The techs who keep it working can find every nut and bolt blindfolded but don't really know why it's all arranged the way it is. The totality of its existence is beyond mere human consideration.


Humans fuck up. Like Microsoft says, it's not a bug, it's a feature.

In Plant parlance a fuckup is called an "unintentional energy release." This euphemism hides the basic problem with Plants, which is their sheer scale. If you trip on the sidewalk, you may get some scrapes; you may even break a bone; if you are really unlucky you may fall onto someone else and break one of their bones. Odds are you won't blow out all the windows in town, or kill thousands of people. Walking is a low-energy activity in the grand scheme of things.

Get into a car and have a similar fuckup, and you can easily kill yourself and an arbitrary number of strangers. It's a matter of the energies at your disposal; when misdirected, the thousand-kilo car travelling at 50 kph can do vastly more harm than your 100 kilo body going 10 kph.

In a Plant, the energies are phenomenal. Huge tanks are superheated and pressurized; huge tanks of toxic and explosive chemicals lounge around waiting to be tapped at the wrong time or spring leaks. I have picked up the pieces after an operater added the water to the acid instead of the other way around, and a 20,000-pound capacity tank the size of a living room danced around a a process area bashing the crap out of everything in its way. I've visited a Plant days after a catalytic cracker exploded, killing seven, blowing out all the windows in the town that grew up around the Plant, and tearing up everything in the facility except the blockhouse-like control room. I've given last rites to equipment that was designed for 110 VAC operation but given 440 VAC instead.

That's not even to mention incidents like Bhopal.

Plants are built the way they are to harness economies of scale; efficiency is their purpose, which is why they are ugly, smelly, and ubiquitous. Yet there is a fundamental danger in the whole philosophy behind Plants, because by their nature they require vast concentrations of energy to work, and when that energy is released by accident the consequences are horrible.

And this concludes our tour of Oz.

My purpose here isn't to call for some action. I really don't know what could be done about the Plant problem; we depend on them now to such a degree that we can't exist without them. But I think it's important to know what the infrastructure of your life looks like. I know a lot of tofu-munching PETA member vegetarians who have no idea how dangerous the processes are that make the vinyl and PVC they would rather use than leather. And i know right-wing Rush Limbaugh worshippers who have no idea what shortcuts are taken in the name of efficiency because the possibility of a few deaths doesn't impact the bottom line quite as severely as a really effective safety program.

I don't know if there is an alternative to the Plant. But I think people should know what they are like. You should be aware of what is done to provide you with PVC plumbing and HDPE milk cartons and gasoline and even silicon chips. You should be allowed to appreciate it in all its ghastly splendor, and to pass an informed judgement on it.

There have been many people who died because they could not do that. This is my testament in their honor, such as it is.


Voxel dot net
o Managed Hosting
o VoxCAST Content Delivery
o Raw Infrastructure


The danger level of my job is...
o Hell, I work in an office 62%
o My office was in the WTC 0%
o Somebody drops a match, send flowers 3%
o Safe as swimming. Well maybe with sharks. 8%
o Geraldo will hear about it. 0%
o If it's a forklift the wife knows to sue. 5%
o I am perfectly safe. I totally trust my employer. 9%
o For what they're paying me, I don't care 10%

Votes: 86
Results | Other Polls

Related Links
o Also by localroger

Display: Sort:
Plant | 60 comments (50 topical, 10 editorial, 0 hidden)
Good story ... (4.55 / 9) (#6)
by joegee on Sat Jan 19, 2002 at 02:19:49 AM EST

... as I read it using my CRT (which contains teratogenic and carcinogenic materials, not to mention very high energy photons) attached to my PC (ditto, for each component), which rests on a forged steel wire shelving unit (ditto), sitting my rear end on my computer chair (etc), which slides on my carpeting made of synthetic material (you get the point). In an industrial society places like The Plant are common. :/

When the wind blows from the southeast, which is thankfully infrequent, I can step outside and get a bracing noseful of vinyl chloride. The rest of the U.S. gets garden hose. I get vinyl chloride. We wonder why cancer rates continue to climb, but there's not a person who comes in here who doesn't have trace amounts of PCB's, dioxins, mercury, lead, arsenic, strontium, and cadmium in their bodies.

Could you imagine going into a chemical plant and smelling things, but not seeing all those warnings/procedures? The scary regulations that you experienced prevent us from having places like Bhopal domestically (it shouldn't have happened in India either).

In spite of it all, we still end up with Love Canals, or in the instance of my high school which is now scheduled for demolition, cancer clusters due to secret buried government chemical dumps. :/

<sig>I always learn something on K5, sometimes in spite of myself.</sig>
Plants are sexy (4.60 / 10) (#9)
by DranoK 420 on Sat Jan 19, 2002 at 04:27:29 AM EST

You gave me a few minutes of quality entertainment so... So +1FP =) Thanks localroger.

I really find plants mystifying though. It's funny. I grew up in a small town in montana called Missoula. Great place. Don't worry -- it's actually a very liberal place. When I lived there the Green Party was in control of the city council.

Anyhoo, I remember my best friends were in S.A.V.E -- Students Against Violating the Environment. I had jazz band after school so never joined, and anyhow my idea of fun was never picking through 'recycle containers' which students, in addition to throwing their recycleables, would toss in vomit, spit and occasionally piss. It was quite unsettleing.

I digress again. After this (and jazz) I'd meet with a few of my closer friends and we'd get stoned and drive down to about a mile from Stone Container. Stone Container was a cardboard producing plant.

The stench was toxic and made you wanna puke at first but you got over it pretty quickly. And then, before you as you sat on the hood of the still-warm car staring up, you'd realize the sky was black, and moving. More than moving, really, bubbling over. The smoke was pitch-black in the night with only the tiniest shimmer of the moon penetrating its cloak. And in the distance was this city-sized machine, taller than any building in Missoula, lit up brighter than day. You could look around at the dead trees and the land that seemed, as the author said, just torn from the land.

But something was strange about it. Afterward, in the safety of our own rooms or a coffee shop, everything seemed differently. Now, drinking that double mocha and relaxing with niccotine, I could get pissed at the plant. I could be angry with it, and explain how shit like that was gonna ruin our own future. But it wasn't like that out there.

In the cold night staring at the plant you couldn't help but just silently respect the beast. Out there I just stared at it, thinking the most imaginative thoughts I could, entranced by its beauty. And it was beautiful.

Sitting out in the dark like that makes you realize the inspiration such plants are. How much of the technology we take for granted arose because of these organisms? How many sci-fi books and music has this imagry created?

So, after all this rambling, I repeat -- plants are sexy. Harmful? Maybe. But still beautiful.


Poetry is simply a convenient excuse for incoherence.

Or to juxtapose words... (3.50 / 2) (#13)
by skyknight on Sat Jan 19, 2002 at 10:10:58 AM EST

How much of this technology arose as the result of science fiction come science fact?

It's not much fun at the top. I envy the common people, their hearty meals and Bruce Springsteen and voting. --SIGNOR SPAGHETTI
[ Parent ]
Was the plant really beautiful (3.50 / 2) (#15)
by bunsen on Sat Jan 19, 2002 at 12:49:35 PM EST

or were you just enjoying some side effects of the fumes?

Do you want your possessions identified? [ynq] (n)
[ Parent ]
Missoula Memories (3.50 / 2) (#38)
by FelixTheCat on Mon Jan 21, 2002 at 12:47:31 AM EST

Ah, Missoula. I too grew up there. Living on the South Hill (off of 23rd Ave.) we were spared most of the smell from the various paper mills in town. We were also high enough to be above most of the inversions that would settle in over the valley like a cap, trapping the smell with it.

No, what we got up there was the wood smoke. Winters in Missoula got cold (anyone for daytime highs of 20 below zero Fahrenheit?), so people would crank up the old wood stove to keep their gas bills from going into the stratosphere. The smell of wood smoke would be so strong it was almost sickening.

Now, it's been 15 years since I last saw Missoula, so things have probably changed since then. But, since I actually hated living there and to this day hope that the whole Goddamned town would just sink into the murky depths of Hell, I guess I just can't be bothered to worry about how it changed.


[ Parent ]
What are the Squiggly Pipes for? (3.25 / 4) (#10)
by snowlion on Sat Jan 19, 2002 at 06:18:16 AM EST

I was wondering about this on my train trip to California from Washington:

What are all the squiggly pipes for? I wondered about that and gested with my kitty, "What is with those chemical plant engineers? By the way these things are shaped, you'd think they were art projects or something." Just pipes going every which way, going across for a while, then up, right, back down, across, and then repeating again. Very strange; It seems to have no purpose or order, accept to follow 90 degree angles- mostly.

So, what's going on there? Are they trapping parts of the liquid chemical solutions to certain heights, or..?

Or are they just purely decoration and public illusion?

Map Your Thoughts
Steam Pipes (4.00 / 2) (#12)
by localroger on Sat Jan 19, 2002 at 09:14:21 AM EST

The pipes which make seemingly random squiggles are probably steam pipes. They must carry very high pressures and temperatures, so they are very thick and rigid; yet they must provide for expansion. Long runs will therefore have inexplicable "U"-detours which can bend just a tad.

In a Plant there is a reason for everything. But it's a matter of chance whether you will ever meet the person who knows what the reason is.

I can haz blog!
[ Parent ]

Close (4.66 / 3) (#29)
by bigbird on Sat Jan 19, 2002 at 05:19:52 PM EST

Thermal expansion. Any pipes carrying anything in a North American climate (or any other climate, I am sure) have to operate over a wide range of temperatures - from 30 or 40C in the summer to -45C in the winter at refineries in places like Edmonton. On a pipe which is a few hundred metres long, a temperature swing of 80C will be quite noticable - likely a few inches at least.

Also, process piping which is intermittently used could go up to several hundred degrees celsius when in use, and remain at ambient temperatures the remainder of the time.


[ Parent ]

Worse than that (5.00 / 3) (#31)
by localroger on Sat Jan 19, 2002 at 05:50:55 PM EST

Main steam line feeds generally run at 1,000 PSI or more and temperatures north of 2,000 F. Yet they will sometimes be allowed to cool down to ambient. The temperatures and pressures are too high for expansion joints, so these "U" detours must detour far enough for the very thick, rigid pipe to be able to bend and absorb these significant changes in length that happen when you cycle the system in and out of use.

A surprising number of processes are powered by live steam; it's used both for general heating, for its pressure. This steam is much hotter than anything in everyday experience; when it's been used it's allowed to condense into effluent ditches, and it's common to see this fluid steaming even as it flows out of the plant. It's still nearly boiling after travelling half a mile down an open ditch.

I can haz blog!
[ Parent ]

The swamp is just biding it's time (4.25 / 4) (#11)
by imrdkl on Sat Jan 19, 2002 at 06:24:27 AM EST

It will have it's territory back, sooner or later. This is the way of southern "foliage". You only think that the ground is sterile. In 50 years, that distant swamp, or perhaps some other form of dense, irritating underbrush will be in control again. Possibly with a few new (even more irritating) local variations, yes.

beware the foliage (none / 0) (#51)
by h2odragon on Tue Jan 22, 2002 at 09:14:07 AM EST

its just biding its time, waiting perhaps for a run of potent fertilizer...

[ Parent ]
Trust Thyself! (none / 0) (#14)
by The Great Wakka on Sat Jan 19, 2002 at 12:31:11 PM EST

Of couse I trust my employer: me! :D

Typo in your sig (none / 0) (#33)
by Sig Critic on Sat Jan 19, 2002 at 06:39:07 PM EST

"... and a promise to lanet itself, never to repeat the tragedy of Earth." -Lady Deidre Skye "The Early Years"

I believe "lanet" should be "Planet". Unless your copy of Alpha Centauri is different to mine.

"It is salutary to train oneself to be no more affected by censure than by praise." - W. Somerset Maugham

[ Parent ]

What are the stacks for? (3.00 / 3) (#16)
by Cantara on Sat Jan 19, 2002 at 02:20:22 PM EST

That was very very good. It was the type of story that made me sad to reach the ending.
Thank you localroger.

The story reminds me of a trip that some friends and I took to Galveston, TX. On the way we had to pass through Texas City, which seemed to be just one series of industrial plant after another. It was night and some of the plants had these tall thin stacks spouting flames. As we were passing through everyone in the car started coughing and I remember my eyes were burning and tearing. There was also an acrid chemical smell coming through the AC. Much later in life some friends and I were sitting in a Bennigans and some idiot in the bar triggered their can of mace, which was then picked up by the ventilation system and dispersed throughout the building. The effect on everyone was eerily the same.

I've always wondered what those stacks were for and what they were venting. Does anyone know?

depends on what the plant is making (5.00 / 3) (#26)
by janra on Sat Jan 19, 2002 at 05:00:25 PM EST

Generally, the 'tall thin stacks spouting flames' (flares) are burning off light combustible gases; they are supposed to have a small (relatively speaking - say about 6-10 feet high) flame up top at all times. Many of them have natural gas supplied to them to keep the flame going. They actually have a safety function; often the combustion products of a plant's effluents are a lot less harmful than the effluents themselves, so having that flame go out is a Very Bad Thing. If there's an upset and the amount of effluent to the stack increases, those flares go nuts, and the flames can shoot taller again than the stack. Rather spectacular.

Not to say that combustion products aren't harmful in and of themselves...

The smell probably wasn't related to the flares, but to other process units venting. And that very much depends not only on what the plant is making as an end product, but the pathway it has chosen to reach that end.

Discuss the art and craft of writing
That's the problem with world domination... Nobody is willing to wait for it anymore, work slowly towards it, drink more and enjoy the ride more.
[ Parent ]
Flare outs (4.00 / 1) (#42)
by rob on Mon Jan 21, 2002 at 09:49:42 AM EST

From what I understand from working in the process industry, sometimes when critical process equipment fails (say a pump or a motor) and the plant cannot handle 100% of what is going in, it is cheaper to vent and temporarily burn the product that cannot be processed rather than shut the entire line down.

[ Parent ]
leather processing isn't chemical free either (4.16 / 6) (#19)
by clark9000 on Sat Jan 19, 2002 at 03:21:47 PM EST

Excellent article--well written, fascinating and important. Just one quick point I wanted to make about this sentence:

I know a lot of tofu-munching PETA member vegetarians who have no idea how dangerous the processes are that make the vinyl and PVC they would rather use than leather.

It's important to remember that leather doesn't come off the back of a cow in shoe form. There is an elaborate chemical processing procedure that turns raw animal hide into designer shoes (or whatever). This PDF from the EPA talks a little about leather production and some of the toxic emissions it may produce. Google HTML version of the PDF is here.

In terms of safety, I have never visited a slaugherhouse, but from what I understand, while they are not likely to explode and level a town, slaughterhouses also have very poor safety measures for their workers. Workers are often illegal immigrants with no legal recourse against their employers or no knowledge of their rights.
Much madness is divinest sense
To a discerning eye;
Much sense the starkest madness.

-- E. Dickinson
Types of tanning (5.00 / 5) (#24)
by localroger on Sat Jan 19, 2002 at 04:21:11 PM EST

Leather for clothing is usually chrome-tanned, because this process makes the leather waterproof. This is every bit as nasty an industrial process as manufacturing PVC.

More traditional tanning methods like vegetable and brain tanning generate waste which is easier on the ecosystem, but these techniques are slower, more expensive, and do not seal the leather as permanently.

Leather for tooling (as seen in a lot of country-western wear) must be traditionally tanned because permanently sealed leather can't be manipulated; water doesn't soften it for tooling and it won't absorb new colors of dye. This leather is significantly more expensive than chrome-tanned garment leather.

Thin garment leather which is vegetable or brain tanned is extremely soft and comfortable. Chrome-tanned leather is like cardboard by comparison.

As for slaughterhouses, on the plus side they don't run inherently high-energy processes. They may run a rendering plant, and use liquid CO2 to make IQF (Individually Quick Frozen) product, but there is nothing like a cat cracker or pressure reactor to be found.

On the minus side they use lots of very sharp knives and automatic machinery which is designed to tear flesh apart and can tear yours just as easily if you slip up. You can also be exposed to any diseases the animals had. You can also get hypothermia from working in refrigerated rooms all day long. Electrocution is also a problem in food processing plants because they are wet all the time from the sanitation procedures.

As to whether I'd rather be around potentially leaky chlorine tanks or slog around in blood and intestines all day long, well, hmmmmm. That's a toughie. The upshot is that the places which produce the things required by our modern society are not particularly good places for the people who run them to be. Maybe we can work on that problem after we get the resource-distribution paradigm figured out once and for all...

I can haz blog!
[ Parent ]

worker safety, supply chain (4.66 / 3) (#25)
by clark9000 on Sat Jan 19, 2002 at 04:58:47 PM EST

All good points. One more minus I'd add to slaughterhouse safety is that because slaughterhouses don't risk exploding, it's only the workers on the line who are in danger. The people who run the place, although they work in the same building, don't suffer the consequences of poor safety measures. Rather they are rewarded for making the place run faster at the expense of worker safety. In a chemical plant, if the bosses push the balance too far, everyone dies. So the people who actually control safety have a vested interest in it.

Separately, what I'd be curious about is a comparison of the end-to-end processes for producing leather versus say vinyl. For leather, we start at a feedlot (filthy, dangerous, polluting), go to a slaughterhouse (filthy, dangerous, polluting), then to the tanning plant (dangerous, polluting, maybe less filthy?). For vinyl, I don't know much about it, but I guess it's like so: start from oil drilling/pumping place (dangerous, polluting), to oil refinery (dangerous, polluting), to chemical plant (dangerous, polluting [see article])?

What I would guess for the vinyl process is that the amount of danger and pollution per unit produced is lower than for leather.
Much madness is divinest sense
To a discerning eye;
Much sense the starkest madness.

-- E. Dickinson
[ Parent ]
The metrics become incredibly complex (4.75 / 4) (#30)
by localroger on Sat Jan 19, 2002 at 05:41:26 PM EST

Hazard analysis: How many people are at hazard? What is the worst-case scenario? How do you compare a high probability of losing a limb to a low probability of being vaporized in an infrequent explosion? How fair is it to expose workers to hazards? On the one hand workers work at a particular place "voluntarily," on the other hand you must generate an income or starve, so there is an element of coercion.

Pollution: How much pollution? Where does it go? How toxic is it? How long does it stay toxic? Is it chronically hazardous (e.g. hazardous in low dose long-term exposure)? How hard is it to contain?

Are there useful byproducts? Leather itself is now a byproduct of the hamburger industry; the hides would go to waste if not tanned. This is why leather clothes are now much cheaper than they were in the 1980's. Yet vinyl chloride has many more uses other than substituting for leather; how important are those other uses? If some other purpose justifies the manufacturing risks, does the extra manufacturing necessary to do an additional side job add very much to a risk that's going to be taken anyway?

By the time you come up with enough formulas to convert all the apples and oranges into equivalent kumquats, there are so many assumptions that you can tweak the results to look any way you want.

I can haz blog!
[ Parent ]

Cheaper leather (3.00 / 1) (#40)
by rusty on Mon Jan 21, 2002 at 01:34:08 AM EST

I recall a Washinton Post article a couple years ago (either summer 1998 or 1999, I think) which I now can't find any trace of that said that the plunging price of leather was due to new tanning processes that make it possible to produce clothing-quality leather out of just about any old crap you have lying around, combined with an increasing reliance on imported leather from east Asian producers. I think there was a bit in there about the rather dubious animals these hides are coming from as well, including dog and possibly rat.

Does anyone else remember seeing this?

Not the real rusty
[ Parent ]

Dog (none / 0) (#41)
by wiredog on Mon Jan 21, 2002 at 08:57:23 AM EST

When I was overseas I picked up a pair of Genuine Doghide boots lined with Genuine Dog Fur. Warmest boots I've ever worn. Comfortable, too. In fact, they're so war that I don't wear them anymore. It doesn't get that cold here in NoVa. They were great when I went up into the mountains in Utah in the winter.

Peoples Front To Reunite Gondwanaland: "Stop the Laurasian Separatist Movement!"
[ Parent ]
Hmmmmm, doesn't surprise me (5.00 / 1) (#47)
by localroger on Mon Jan 21, 2002 at 08:54:33 PM EST

...that said that the plunging price of leather was due to new tanning processes that make it possible to produce clothing-quality leather out of just about any old crap you have lying around, combined with an increasing reliance on imported leather from east Asian producers.

I've noticed that a lot of the latest leather clothes are extremely thin, and made of very small panels. Probably the new tanning process is something that doesn't work on thick hides. Time is a major factor in tanning, and it takes time for chemicals to penetrate a thick hide.

There is also an abundance of suede, which suggests that thick pelts are being split. Splitting a hide results in two thinner hides, but only one will have the "outside" of the skin that is capable of being made shiny. Multiple splitting results in many thin pieces of suede for each piece of leather.

Suede is considered inferior to smooth leather because it can't be sealed. Chrome tanning helps somewhat, but the fibres that make it fuzzy can absorb dye and dirt no matter how you treat them. Processes which attempt to seal suede like outside-skin leather result in a product that doesn't bend or fold as readily and can crack. This is what "patent" leather is.

A lot of really fine leather doesn't come from cows. Leather from pig hides can be much higher quality than that from cows; it is the right thickness for garment use without being split (a bit heavy, but very soft) and is naturally softer for the same thickness. Lamb and sheep hides are even better, but large panels are nearly impossible to find, and much of the leather is tanned as shorthair fur for things like seat covers and linings. I once made a pair of leather pants for myself out of a single very large pig hide, and managed to lay them out so that there were no panelling joins from ankle to waist. I'd still be wearing them if I hadn't worn a hole in one knee, and gained 60 pounds, and aged almost 20 years. What was I talking about?

I wouldn't worry too much about rat and dog leather, because unless you obsess over it you'll never notice the difference. I would imagine that for some uses each of these is superior to other types. (If kidskin gloves are valued because they are thin and supple, wouldn't perchance the skin of a rat or dog be even better?) And it's not like you eat leather.

We have a big problem in Louisiana with Nutria, aka "Nutria rats." They have displaced beavers in the ecosystem but they literally eat the landscape. It would help if they were hunted, but their economic value is not too great. Nutria meat hasn't caught on despite several high-profile nutria cookoffs. The animals were originally raised for their fur, which is quite supple and high quality. But the effort to get hunters interested in them for that was pretty well torpedoed by PETA. Meanwhile, they are a major contributor to wetland erosion.

I guess you can tell this is another topic I know entirely too much about.

I can haz blog!
[ Parent ]

Ratskin gloves, mmm (3.00 / 1) (#49)
by rusty on Tue Jan 22, 2002 at 02:31:52 AM EST

Actually, the prospect of rat leather doesn't bother me at all. In fact, I think I'm more comfortable with that than with wearing the skin of a cute fluffy lamb. It's not like world has a shortage of rats.

Of course, in the article, the usual suspects were there saying how reprehensible this is. Now, if they're tanning stolen pet dogs (which apparently does also happen) that would bother me.

I do believe there was something about splitting thicker hides more times as well. Your guess is probably right.

Not the real rusty
[ Parent ]

I don't get it. (2.20 / 5) (#20)
by mindstrm on Sat Jan 19, 2002 at 03:45:05 PM EST

What's your point, exactly? That plants are bad? Dangerous?

You seem to be mocking them for having danger signs around, or for talking about 'Uncontrolled energy release'.. is there some reason you feel these are inadequate?

Regarding lockout policy:
BCC maintains a strict lockout/tagout policy. Never remove a lock or tag from a control yourself. It is your responsibility to remove your own lock or tag from a control when your work is complete. Failure to observe lockout/tagout rules can result in uncontrolled energy releases and/or injury [ed: things going boom and people getting killed]

What's your point? This is a standard lockout policy, you will find it anywhere big equipment is used, it SAVES LIVES EVERY DAY.

Uncontrolled energy release and/or injury means a lot more than "Things going boom and people getting killed".

So.. your point is what. A Chemical plant is dangerous?

Sure.. I agree, hippies who think PVC is more 'friendly' than leather are wrong.. but still.

Is there some specific incident that prompted you to show how bad an accident can be?

no one knows where stuff comes from (4.40 / 5) (#21)
by clark9000 on Sat Jan 19, 2002 at 03:57:41 PM EST

The main thing I took away from the article is that it's yet another illustration of how the typical person has no idea what goes into producing the products he or she depends on everyday. We just take it for granted that the toy store shelf will always be full of manufactured plastic products. Where do they come from? They're manufactured we think to ourselves, and that seems to be enough. Localroger is just providing a peek behind the scenes, into the good (incredible feats of engineering, safety procedures that actually do work, etc) and the bad (the fact that people occasionally get killed, that nature is disrupted, etc).
Much madness is divinest sense
To a discerning eye;
Much sense the starkest madness.
-- E. Dickinson
[ Parent ]
Not the point (4.50 / 4) (#28)
by DarkZero on Sat Jan 19, 2002 at 05:10:10 PM EST

The point of it was sort of that there wasn't any point. This article wasn't trying to persuade you to join some crusade either for or against chemical plants. It was simply to inform, using unbiased facts, so that the reader could make their own judgement.

Not every informative article has to be persuading you to do something for the author. In fact, the really good informative articles are the ones that ask you to do nothing but read, absorb, and make your own judgement, such as this one.

[ Parent ]
Excellent writing (3.75 / 4) (#22)
by bugmaster on Sat Jan 19, 2002 at 04:00:12 PM EST

Wow, I haven't seen writing of this quality online ever since... er... I'll get back to you.

I would vote this +1 FP if it wasn't already on the FP :-)

corrosion (3.20 / 5) (#23)
by clark9000 on Sat Jan 19, 2002 at 04:12:06 PM EST

Oh yeah, I think this article is particularly appropriate for Kuro5hin because it mentions, well, corrosion. Heheheh. Well I thought it was funny. So shut up.
Much madness is divinest sense
To a discerning eye;
Much sense the starkest madness.
-- E. Dickinson
Neat Article (3.66 / 3) (#27)
by zephiros on Sat Jan 19, 2002 at 05:01:57 PM EST

I don't think I'll look at Norco in quite the same way again. I wonder if any of the facilities offer tours for the idly curious.
Kuro5hin is full of mostly freaks and hostile lunatics - KTB
No tours (4.66 / 3) (#32)
by localroger on Sat Jan 19, 2002 at 06:05:16 PM EST

I can't think of a single facility of any size that hosts tours for the general public. Getting in to do actual work is a major PITA. It is increasingly common for them not to even have receptionists; the lobby will be a bare room with a phone and a locked door. If you don't know the extension of someone to call to let you in, you are SOL.

A few food processing facilities do tours; the Tabasco plant at Avery Island does, as does the Konriko rice mill in New Iberia. These are low-energy and relatively clean facilities. Refineries and chemical plants have to think of your safety, their liability, their trade secrets, and the PR hassle of letting the public find out how ugly and dangerous the place really is.

The nearest opportunity I can think of for an ordinary person to get a glimpse of this kind of facility would be to take the hard hat tour at Hoover Dam ($25, and you get to keep the hat). They don't have the chemicals but the dam itself is a high-energy project and you get a good look at the kind of equipment and techniques which are used when you have no choice if you want to get the job done. (The cheaper standard tour isn't nearly as informative, or as much fun.)

A lot of nuclear power plants also give tours, but they are carefully spun and nuke plants themselves are atypically clean (dirt-wise, at least). The experience of being in a nuke plant as a contractor is much different than taking the tour.

I can haz blog!
[ Parent ]

tours (3.00 / 1) (#34)
by janra on Sat Jan 19, 2002 at 10:30:52 PM EST

I know the pulp mill in my hometown offered tours every week or so, usually to the junior/senior high schools, but I'm pretty sure they were open to the public as well. Mind you, I don't know how much of the plant they actually showed.

I've been on tours of several plants - pretty decent tours, too - but then they've all been with my chemical engineering class, so the companies were understandably more willing to show us what was actually going on.

Discuss the art and craft of writing
That's the problem with world domination... Nobody is willing to wait for it anymore, work slowly towards it, drink more and enjoy the ride more.
[ Parent ]
safety (5.00 / 4) (#35)
by janra on Sun Jan 20, 2002 at 12:00:34 AM EST

the truly terrifying Plants are the ones that don't smell at all. No smell doesn't mean there's nothing in the air, it just means that you don't get any warning that there is.

That's one interpretation of no smell; the other is that it's a very new plant with a damn good effluent treatment system (unfortunately, this is rare). I once worked at a non-stinky pulp mill. It was kind of unnerving, standing in the middle of the pulp mill and not being surrounded by the standard pulp-mill stink. There was one room that had that standard smell, and it was pretty weak. The problem with this particular pulp mill was, that they had spent so much money cleaning it up during their renovation 10 years before, that they were never going to get out of debt - as I understood it, the interest alone was so high it ate up almost all of their profits. And that's why chemical plants stink. Not because it's physically impossible to contain the smells, but because it costs too much. :-p

Industrial accidents happen all the time and unless they claim multiple lives or spill out beyond the perimeter fence, they aren't news.

They don't make the mainstream news, anyhow. I'm not sure what the system in the US is called or what it can do, but in Canada we have the WCB (Worker's Compensation Board) who gets to beat on companies when workers get injured, in the form of increased insurance premiums and in extreme cases, plant shutdowns. As you might guess, the companies would be much happier if the WCB just disappeared.

the possibility of a few deaths doesn't impact the bottom line quite as severely as a really effective safety program.

Sadly, this is true. The cost of a safety program that protects 99% of the people is some obscene amount higher than the cost of a safetly program that protects 95%; it vaguely resembles an exponential function. The sweet spot must be found that protects the most people without bankrupting the company.

This is also true for environmental systems. (See the top of this comment for my description of the non-stinky pulp mill...) The company must decide whether it's cheaper to build and run a treatment facility, or to eat the fines that come if their disposal system starts leaking ten or twenty years down the road. These exact situations have been discussed in my engineering economics classes, and industrial health & safety classes.

Discuss the art and craft of writing
That's the problem with world domination... Nobody is willing to wait for it anymore, work slowly towards it, drink more and enjoy the ride more.
What a horrible story (2.00 / 9) (#36)
by GreenCrackBaby on Sun Jan 20, 2002 at 07:59:48 PM EST

I laughed when I read this comment. Unbiased Facts?!?

This story is pathetically one-sided, and shows a complete lack of research. Want proof? Here we go:

1.)It's impossible to keep volatile chemicals completely contained

And the author is backing this up with what reference material? Wait a minute...you mean the author just dropped a quick, but very damning, statement and expects us, the reader, to accept this sans-proof.

2.)...and most Plants have a distinctive smell. In some the smell is oily and sulphurous

Hey, that's great. "That plant smells like sulfur!" Ever consider that's because they probably use sulfur there? If any of you have ever lived along a rail line, you should be able to pick up little balls of sulfur dropped from the rail cars. Very smelly, and very harmless.

3.)No smell doesn't mean there's nothing in the air, it just means that you don't get any warning that there is.

Well, you wanted a biased statement, and there is a great one! Ever consider that no smells means that they are actually a safe plant that isn't leaking stuff all over the place?

4. Here at BCC we work with [omigod] which reacts violently on contact with water or air. WARNING TO WOMEN OF CHILD-BEARING AGE: [omigod] is a powerful teratogen, and if you are or might be pregnant you MUST consult with a Plant nurse before entering operating areas where [omigod] is handled.

Geez, ever read the box on some common cold medicines? You'll probably see warnings to pregnant women, or to people who operate heavy machinery, etc. Does this make the product super toxic, or does this just show that maybe the company is actually worried about hurting people.

And don't get me started on the "plant asthetics" part of the story. Do you really want some plant to allow Architect Joe to design the critical systems and such so that they "look all pretty", or would you rather have a bunch of people with engineering physics degrees design it and maybe keep it from blowing up and killing a lot of stuff?

The author says that the point of the article is for us to be able to "pass an informed judgement" on plants. The problem is that to be "informed" here requires a graduate degree in chemical engineering. Otherwise you get stories like this one that back up none of their data, and still enjoy the benifit of grandios claims and generalities.

I propose Localroger's Law of Plant Safety: The more safety notices you see in a place, the less safe the place is.

I'm not even going to touch that one...

Facts: (5.00 / 6) (#45)
by Hillgiant on Mon Jan 21, 2002 at 12:12:03 PM EST

In the future, you can reply to existing comments by clicking the "reply to" link below the comment in question. This helps preserve the flow of the discussion.

I am a degreed mechanical engineer. I have five years of experience in high pressure (10k-15k psi)and high temperature (up to 1450degF) mechanical systems.

  1. It's impossible to keep volatile chemicals completely contained

    Your average catalytic cracker unit has a design temperature of 650degF. There is no method of creating a dynamic seal at this temperature. If you have a dynamic seal (all valves have at least one) the best you can do is have inconel reenforced graphite packing backed up by a steam purge seal. Even that will leak at an alarming (enviornmentally speaking) rate.

  2. ...and most Plants have a distinctive smell. In some the smell is oily and sulphurous

    This is mostly a quality of life issue. I used to work at a place across the river from a series of five refineries. We had "smell of the day" depending on which way the wind was blowing. I got tired of the yellow powder I kept finding on my car after work.

  3. No smell doesn't mean there's nothing in the air, it just means that you don't get any warning that there is.

    Two words: Hydrogen Sulfide. The first breath stinks, the second breath kills the ofactory nerves (doesn't stink anymore), third breath causes unconsousness, fourth is deadly. Fear this substance.

  4. Geez, ever read the box on some common cold medicines?

    Have you looked at the MSDS linked above? Even if that were not the only dangerous chemical at the plant, it is a little more harmful than Nyquil. As a side note: I could not find a MSDS for Dextromethorphan hydrobromide (the active ingredient in Nyquil).

Asthetics are subjective. However, Joe Average K5 user works in a nice office building/complex, with working airconditioning and heat, and the most dangerous chemical they encounter on a daily basis is the coffee from the break room down the hall.

The author made many references to the complexity of chemical plants. Even with the required "graduate degree in chemical engineering" I doubt that any one person knows every function of every peice of equipment. Heck the specifications for the control valves I used to design averaged 40-50 pages thick. That is one part of one peice of equipment used in one process.

"It is impossible to say what I mean." -johnny
[ Parent ]

Fear this substance. (3.66 / 3) (#46)
by gordonjcp on Mon Jan 21, 2002 at 01:07:20 PM EST

Two words: Hydrogen Sulfide. The first breath stinks, the second breath kills the ofactory nerves (doesn't stink anymore), third breath causes unconsousness, fourth is deadly.
This is the "rotten egg" smell you get from catalytic-converter equipped cars, when the engine is warming up. It's very very nasty stuff, even nastier than the benzene they use to replace the tetraethyl lead in leaded four-star.
You really, *really* want to avoid unleaded petrol. Nasty, nasty stuff.

Give a man a fish, and he'll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he'll bore you rigid with fishing stories for the rest of your life.

[ Parent ]
Smell (none / 0) (#60)
by Eric Green on Thu Jan 24, 2002 at 07:06:24 PM EST

It doesn't take "proof" to know that plants smell. All it takes is working in a number of them. I left chunks of my hearing in the turbines at the Rayne plant of Enron Gas and worked at pretty much every plant between Breaux Bridge and Lake Charles for a subcontractor that did instrument calibration, and virtually all of them stunk that peculiar chemical smell. One that did not was the Anse La Butte plant between Breaux Bridge and Lafayette, I forget who owned it, all I know is that it blew up a few months after I said fuck this crap and went back to college to get my computer science degree. Proving I don't know what, maybe that smell has nothing to do with safety?
You are feeling sleepy... you are feeling verrry sleepy...
[ Parent ]
it's quite simple, really (2.00 / 7) (#37)
by turmeric on Mon Jan 21, 2002 at 12:27:53 AM EST

the people who get hurt by the 'plant system' (that is a pretty cool idea i got from your article), they merely need the power to make it not hurt them. when globo-corp gets sued or someone moves in on its territory or some law changes that affects it, it reacts. it fights back. it hires lawyers and analysts and engineers and salesman and PR people and etc etc etc and it survives and remains profitable. how is this possible? well, first of all it is educated out the ass. all its managers and top level people have been to uppity-up university studying this shit for years, and probably they grew up around their parents listening to them talk about managing similar problems. meanwhile, joe blow chemical plant worker probably went to high school where books were not allowed, where the most important thing on the teachers minds was whether or not you could say the lords prayer at the football game, etc. their kids will grow up listening to stories about bar-fights, taxes, uncle jimmy who joined the army, etc. they are not going to understand hundred million dollar loans, the stock market, and all that other shit that i cant name because i dont know it either. sure they can teach themselves later on, but they are so far behind the people running the plant its not even funny. so lets say the plant hurts someone. the people who get hurt, they have no way to fight. they dont know who to fight. they dont know how to fight, or what to fight with, or where to fight, or when to fight. they are too busy dealing with the emotional loss, in the first place, for much of that 'extraneous' stuff anyway. meanwhile the people who benefit off the plant system are far away and unconcerned. now, you want to know how to solve the 'plant problem'.... well, its not really a technical problem. it is politics, it is the way society is organized. i doubt that any of the executives of the big chemical companies would tolerate the working conditions or living conditions of the 'grunts'. if someone put up a big weird tank in their neighborhood, they could get their spouse to go to the neighborhood association meeting and threaten to kick the offender out of the weekly poker game or whatever. they get things done. but the whole problem is that some people are taught to tolerate this crap, and some people arent.... in actuality everyone should have a fair shake, they should have the same ability and 'level playing field' to fight for their rights, to fight when they are hurt or killed, to fight for decent working conditions, etc. if they had that, then there would be no 'plant problem' because they would have figured out some way to solve it. ok, so i am missing alot of details. so? next let me attack consumers. no, consumers dont know or care what is going on to make the products they get. this is as old as time. the iroquois did not care when they became dependent on european trade goods, they did not think ahead to what this dependency would do to their ability to preserve their freedom and way of life. no, they just wanted better guns, cooking utensils, cloth, etc etc etc. as a result they were decimated. but on the other hand, nothing is more powerful than the consumer. reams and reams of business trade magazines are published every day on a million variations of one subject: how to figure out what consumers want, and give it to them. the only thing that can make a CEO of a billion dollar corporation shit his/her pants is the thought that consumers might abandon their product. Is this not what was used in the bus boycotts in Martin King's early civil rights work in Alabama? The power of the consumer dollar was used to turn around a racist and harmful policy of an organization. The bus system was making black people sit in the back of the bus. This hurt them so they fought back. All that was required was a sense of dignity and self respect. From that came everything else, came the organization, the training, the system of drivers using their own cars to transport people, people walking more often, and on and on and on, until eventually they won the day. All we really need is for the people who are hurt to have some sense of hope, that they can fight for their rights, that they have dignity and self respect. Who will bring it? Ralph Nader? I dont know, he is a bit too frayed and nervous. Something will happen eventually though. and as for the PETA folks who love pvc and vinyl, try not to hate them so much. they really do mean well.

Please (none / 0) (#39)
by axxeman on Mon Jan 21, 2002 at 12:50:06 AM EST

Make it readable next time.

Desperately need Egyptologist. Can you help?
[ Parent ]

it's called capitalism (none / 0) (#44)
by zenofchai on Mon Jan 21, 2002 at 10:02:54 AM EST

capitalism: an economic system characterized by private or corporation ownership of capital goods, by investments that are determined by private decision rather than by state control, and by prices, production, and the distribution of goods that are determined mainly in a free market.

this means that a few rich educated people own the means of production, and the vast majority of people own no means of production. in the united states, capitalism is applied with the goal of creating a large 'middle class', which allows people to move from the 'lower class' to the 'upper class' (def: people who control the means of production). in practice, however, capitalism shows that the people in power will abuse their position in power to ensure that they remain in power (ex: MPAA, RIAA, etc, etc), leaving the middle class to bitch and moan without effect, and lower class to fester and rot.

i'm not saying i have any better ideas, or that there are any out there to be had. i'm just saying capitalism as it has been heretofore applied has its flaws.


The K5 Interactive Political Compass SVG Graph
[ Parent ]
my visit to a Plant (4.00 / 2) (#43)
by zenofchai on Mon Jan 21, 2002 at 09:53:08 AM EST

i had a wonderful visit to a nuclear plant in ohio (outside toledo). a good friend was working as a coop (he is now a phd nuclear engineer and knows better than to go near such a place) and one memorable labor day weekend my now-wife and i paid him a visit. we went to cedar point, had a good time, and then he offered to take us on a tour of the nuclear plant. my wife was dubious, but i was very excited. so we decided to go.

i was actually very impressed with the plant, everything was spotlessly clean. they actually had little stations in front of different rooms, offering the proper equipment for each room at the station. earplugs when entering quite a few of them, the noise was immense. i have never heard anything that loud, and that was through a pair of the nicest earplugs i've ever had and some very high grade noise cancellers. granted, i haven't worked an airport runway, but it was LOUD.

the most fun i've had in a long time was registering with the radiation exposure counting people. you get a nice little piece of electrical equipment which you wear, then go through some shielding and doors and it starts ticking. how cool! anyway, we got to see a really deep pool, at the bottom of which spent fuel would cool for a few decades before being buried somewhere near the earth's core. coming out, we got to stick various limbs into detection devices which i would assume would instantely amputate and cauterize an arm or leg if it discovered terribly high radiation levels.

my wife hated the trip, but she did learn an important lesson. do not tease a nuclear engineer about radiation. a dry comment about a pond near the plant 'glowing green' still festers ill will.

all in all i would definately recommend a good nuclear plant trip to anyone who can get one - especially a non-standard, personal one like i was treated to, but even a 'dressed up for the public' should be very educational. i'm actually quite comfortable with nuclear power, i think it's the greatest thing since sliced bread (other than broadband, of course).

The K5 Interactive Political Compass SVG Graph
Don't go dissin' my house! (4.91 / 12) (#48)
by redelm on Tue Jan 22, 2002 at 12:16:23 AM EST

Well, at least you came to visit, even if you were scared sh!tless. That's more than most people can say. I've worked in oil refineries and chemplants for most of my adult life, and come to look on them as home. I feel alot more at ease walking into an unknown plant than an unknown bar. And that goes double for both after dark!

You did get a few things wrong (not your fault, it is complicated), permit me to correct:

  • Very seldom does anyone put "tin shacks in the racks". Operators aren't very useful if they have to climb ladders or stairs to get anywhere. Most key controls are sited at grade, even though this is very expensive. The shacks are usually to protect delicate equipment that has to be there.
  • The "bewildering maze of plumbing" is only so to the uninitiated. In most [good] plants, it's easy to "walk-the-line" to find an indentification stencil. This is more understandable than `c` code, but only barely.
  • You went into a fairly slack plant: no hearing protection or NOMEX fireresist clothing required, no clean-shaven requirement (mask fit), no steel-toed boots. It looks like they also allowed in strike-anywhere matches and cell-phones, both no-no's in careful plants.
  • The camera ban has been at every plant I've ever been in. There are industrial secrets to be stolen by someone who knows what to shoot. And the company has an obligation to protect this IP which is usually licenced from someone else. Flash is also present on many cameras and is an ignition source justlike an arc-welder. You need heavy-duty permits, gas testing, firewatches to do hotwork. Smoking is only allowed on designated smoking pads, and vehicles on roads.
  • Yes, plants are expensive. Moreso in California because land costs more, and there's incredible hassle with permits that cost time (which equals money). The chickens do come home to roost. Actual emissions controls are fairly cheap when the plant is first built. Adding them afterwards costs at least 10x more. 100 M$ for a single unit is about right, and 1G$ for the whole site sounds about right. Most of the cost is for reliability: plants have to run ~16,000 hours between maintenance, not the 300 hours your car does.
  • Man, would I love to work in a plant where downtime was 400 k$/hr. That plant is making some very serious money, even after hefty expenses. Usually, downtime is less than 10 k$/hr. Enough to pay overtime.
  • SS 316 is hardly exotic. It's also known as 18/8 Cr/Ni steel and any decent kitchen cutlery is made from it, or better yet 18/10 to resist the dishwasher. There are some better alloys around like Inconel 800, Hastelloys and Monel, but you have to know where to use them.
  • Safety: It depends on how you measure. Chemplants and oil refineries are safer (firstaide & LTA) than alot of places where many people work like construction sites, lumber mills, fishing & farming, hospitals, assembly plants, restaurants. About the only places safer are office environments.
  • But safety can vary 10x between plants, so it's important that people care. Nice fresh signs and people who care enough to point out safety infractions are good indicators. Attitude at all levels is the most important thing.
  • Most places won't be in the 4 digits of safedays without LTA because they usually have ~500 workers, and 1000 days is 4 million workhours. That's alot! For comparison, consider that most people have some sort of car accident every 1000 driving hours. Some alot more often than that! A few less.
  • As for plant beauty, now you're really on my turf. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. For me, some plants are graceful and some are not. It's pretty easy to tell the difference once you figure out where things are flowing. I've also designed more than a few. They usually turn out nice but once I didn't have input to the layout people. That plant is abominably ugly and expensive even though it works perfectly.
  • The blockhouses "blast resistant control rooms" are a newish thing after Flixborough 1968. They're a good idea because 70+% of the time, there is no-one in the plant except the operators at the controls inside. Reduces major indicent fatalities 70%. The boys at Bintulu, MY were sure glad to be in one when their Oxygen plant blew up like 3 tons TNT on Christmas Day, 1997. No fatailities even though the plant was leveled. But the youngest US refinery is Garyville, LA which started up in 1978 so they're kind of rare. Some chemplants are newer, of course.
  • As for no one understanding everything, I disagree. While no one person may actually know everything, good people know where to find out. I know the processes in my plants, have seen most of the hardware, and will certainly find out whatever I might need to learn. Good people, both engineers and techs take trouble to learn as much as they can. And are willing to be educated when they need to know more.
  • Norco 1988 was a bad accident. There have also been other bad accidents in California. It's worse at old plants because they usually didn't have enough buffer land. It doesn't take much overpressure to break windows. Newer plants like Garyville and Convent are much better.
  • I used to give lots of plant tours. Fewer these days, perhaps for liability reasons. But if you get a group together with a bus and ask the plant HR people very nicely, they may try to find someone to conduct the tour. Some plants have friends&family tour days every year or two, and some even have open houses for the neighbors. More should.
  • "the possibility of a few deaths doesn't impact the bottom line quite as severely as a really effective safety program". I take severe offense at this. There is no-one I know in the industry who takes fatalities lightly, or trades them for profitability. Have you ever been at a plant when a fatality occurred? I have and the mood was terrible, from the big boss on down. If your a cold-hearted type, the production loss (one week) was extremely expensive too, but no-one was counting. Safety programs are unbelievably cheap compared to any accident. The problem is keeping people's attention. A profitable plant is a very boring plant.
  • Still, not an entirely hostile article. We're just too used to being ragged on. It is rare that any writer takes the trouble to consider that plants are a necessity in the consumer-life as we currently live it.

    Not dissin' to tell the truth (5.00 / 1) (#50)
    by localroger on Tue Jan 22, 2002 at 08:45:14 AM EST

    Very seldom does anyone put "tin shacks in the racks". Operators aren't very useful if they have to climb ladders or stairs to get anywhere.

    Then why is, to give one example, Witco in Taft, LA built this way?

    The "bewildering maze of plumbing" is only so to the uninitiated.

    This is true in a purpose-designed facility which has never been extensively modified. After the third or fourth haphazard modification, though, the line gets very twisty indeed.

    Man, would I love to work in a plant where downtime was 400 k$/hr.

    Exxon HFU in Baton Rouge, LA. They make synthetic rubber.

    As for no one understanding everything, I disagree. While no one person may actually know everything, good people know where to find out.

    Sure. I know where to find out. The question is how many people do. Time, energy, and education are all limits.

    I take severe offense at this. There is no-one I know in the industry who takes fatalities lightly, or trades them for profitability.

    Of course fatalities are traded off for profitability. It isn't quite stated that baldly but that is the entire basis of "risk management."

    You went into a fairly slack plant: no hearing protection or NOMEX fireresist clothing required, no clean-shaven requirement (mask fit), no steel-toed boots.

    Where did you read this? Of course I've had to don all those safety precautions. I've also been allowed in in sneakers and short sleeves with no more than a hard hat, when much more should have been required. Union Carbide had rules for about a year that required you to don a flash suit and have a "second" standing by with a fire extinguisher to change a 110-volt light bulb. There is a wide range out there.

    I have been in dozens of plants, and spent literally thousands of hours working with hundreds of different people from line operators to high management. What I presented here is an average between them. While all of the points you raise are accurate in certain particular facilities, they are by no means universal throughout the industry.

    I can haz blog!
    [ Parent ]

    Facts are truth, interpretation is not (5.00 / 1) (#52)
    by redelm on Tue Jan 22, 2002 at 12:06:41 PM EST

    Like most people (myself included), you tend to mix in facts with your interpretations and opinions. Facts are truth, objective and verifiable. Opinions and interpretation are subjective, and at best you get a number of people to agree with you (concensus). I don't have a problem with your facts or your interpretations until you label it all as "truth". Your facts are probably correct (except as below), and your opinions are your opinions. You have a right to them. My comments:

  • I don't know why Witco Taft has an elevated ratshack. Presumably they have something that needs alot of watching at elevation. It may be a shelter for occasional occupancy. This really isn't an industry norm.
  • Twisty lines sometimes are that way for thermal expansion, sometimes to fit them into an existing piperack. They can still be walked if you take your time. No big deal, twists don't make a line unsafe!
  • I think someone was jerking your chain with 400 k$/hr. That's 3.3 G$/yr, or $25/lb for a typical 60 kt/a PIB plant. No way, $1/lb is more typical. Put it this way: if margin really was 400 k$/hr, management really fsck'd up to run out of the no-volume medical specialty that sold @ $25/lb.
  • Well, if you want no risk, you'd better not get up out of bed in the morning. Oops, that has risk too :) Risk management (which I do sometimes) does NOT trade whole fatalities for profit. It does trade very low risks (micromorts) of fatality for profit. Huge difference. No place I know accepts over 100 mm/yr from a known cause. For reference, you accept about 300 mm/yr using a car. Much more on a bike.
  • Thank you for making my point. Plant safety is important, and quite variable. No reason not to strive for improvement. Emotionalism and fearmongering doesn't help. Realistic risk discussions and threat identification does.
  • Nothing is as simple as it appears to the casual observer: You do need to be fully suited, perhaps with a standby for changing a 110V lightbulb. Should have a permit, gas-test and harness too! Those lightbulbs are in expensive explosion-proof housings. Changing a bulb can produce an open spark if LOTO isn't perfectly followed (wrong circuit de-energized). Doing it without NOMEX puts your risk well over 100 mm. Or maybe you like excessive risk?

    [ Parent ]

  • Sheesh (4.50 / 2) (#53)
    by localroger on Tue Jan 22, 2002 at 01:36:47 PM EST

    I don't know why Witco Taft has an elevated ratshack.

    Then I'll clue you in, since i've done a lot of work there. It's the same reason the place stinks to high God, is covered with grime, and can't keep their equipment in good repair. It's because they're CHEAP. As an operator at the Shell plant next door once told me, pointing across the fence, "One day we're going to come to work and there's gonna be nothing there but a hole in the ground." Any more questions?

    Twisty lines ...

    I was referring to your comment that the plant can be readily understood, the "line" from raw input to output easily followed. True in some plants, very untrue in many others.

    I think someone was jerking your chain with 400 k$/hr.

    IIRC their product is about $15 a pound and it's a very, very large facility. They have two production lines and claim about $1 million an hour when everything is humming. Their QC is very exacting, though, and they have quite a bit of downtime due to contamination.

    Risk management (which I do sometimes) does NOT trade whole fatalities for profit. It does trade very low risks (micromorts) of fatality for profit.

    localroger blinks. Yep, it still says that.


    Several minutes later, gasping. What a hoot. You do realize what happens when you add up 1,000,000 micromorts, don't you? Sucks to be the person it happens to.

    What is the value of a human life, the poet asks. A million dollars? Is it even ethical to suggest such an equivalence? Yet as one risk management manual I read advised, "your life is only worth a million dollars if you have a million dollars to pay for it." This is the only way capitalism can address the matter of the value of life, and for most of human history and in many venues it has been considered quite obscene.

    This doesn't mean there is a better way. But people should be aware of the thought processes that are being followed by people who are in a position to either cause or prevent their deaths.

    : You do need to be fully suited, perhaps with a standby for changing a 110V lightbulb.

    Not when it's in an office, which is exactly how UCC interpreted the rule for about a year. It did not refer to hazardous areas, it was enforced everywhere in the facility. It turned minor calibrations and adjustments into a nightmare if you had to open an enclosure with exposed power wiring. Totally ridiculous, as they finally realized after a year or so.

    While I'm thinking of unreasonable safety BS, there's also the matter of making people wear non-breathing Nomex coveralls when it is 95 degrees F and 90% humidity. Which is worse, the potential flash fire or certain dehydration? Better figure those micromorts a little more closely.

    Sure it would be nice if all facilities were run like UCC or Dow, with utmost attention paid to every detail. A lot of them aren't. That is the truth. And a lot of them never will be, because they're owned and run by cheapskates or their product is only marginally profitable and the costs can't be justified even in a sane analysis. And even if all of them were run right, once in awhile someone would forget to check for corrosion in a particularly difficult to reach joint, figuring the corrosion to be about even throughout the pipe system; they wouldn't know about the vortex that formed in that elbow, and they'd get a big nasty surprise. Which is exactly how the big nasty surprise happened in Norco.

    As you said absence of risk is impossible to achieve. But you have to wonder what the risk would be if the cat cracker had never been built at all.

    I can haz blog!
    [ Parent ]

    Risks (4.50 / 2) (#54)
    by Ken Arromdee on Tue Jan 22, 2002 at 03:04:57 PM EST

    What is the value of a human life, the poet asks. A million dollars? Is it even ethical to suggest such an equivalence?

    Yes. Just about every human activity involves risk, and adding up enough of it will produce a sum greater than one life. The small risks of a lot of people driving cars also add up to more than one human life; are you going to say it's unethical to decide that the gain from being able to drive will offset the loss of human life?

    You *must* be able to trade off financial benefit against small risks to life, even though those risks can add up, because if you refuse, not only can't you run a chemical plant, you can't do anything at all.

    [ Parent ]

    Risk isn't linear nor additive (4.50 / 2) (#55)
    by redelm on Tue Jan 22, 2002 at 03:27:41 PM EST

    Jep, I said it and I mean it. Of course you cannot put a value on human life. No-one says you can -- even behind closed doors. Risk isn't linear or additive. Why would you expect it to be given the human $-utility curve is so crooked? But you can put a value on low risks, and people do every day.

    Ever sped up to get somewhere quicker? Ever slowed down 'cuz you felt unsafe in the fog? You just did the calc. People only live ~600 kh, less if you consider only waking hours and/or are older. Trading one micromort of risk for one hour saved is probably a good trade. Likewise, if you work for $x/hr that implies a micromort value, slightly complicated if you really love your job and would work for less. You can also look up some of the black-pill and white-pill surveys done by GM.

    Society also makes decisions like whether to put in a traffic stoplight. Unfortunately, it usually takes some poor kid to get killed before it happens when any quarter-decent traffic analysis would have justified it beforehand. Just because you don't want to put a number value on human life doesn't mean that you act as if life were invaluable. If just means you're less likely to make quantifiable decisions. Maybe that assuages your conscience, but I'd rather make better decisions. That assuages my conscience much better.

    As for individual plant safety, there are some plants I won't go into. Nor can I be fired for it, OSHA 1910 protects me. I could get laid off, but then maybe that plant should close anyways. Or maybe I need the money so desperately I'm willing to take on more risk. As for dehydration, you have to slow down and drink. Cotton isn't so much cooler than NOMEX, although it is more comfortable. We try to schedule big maintenance shutdowns for good weather.

    As for the risk without catcrackers, you have to look at what they do. Half of the gasoline comes from catcrackers. The rest comes from plants almost as bad. Without catcrackers, gasoline would be much more expensive, and we'd be awash in heavy vacuum gasoil, dark solid or slushy at room temperature.

    Now it's 8 G$/yr? $15/lb in volume? please, where? Not in any syn-rubber market I know. If there was, alot more plants would be built because costs are around $0.50/lb.

    [ Parent ]

    An actual limit to energizer-bunny boosterism! (3.50 / 2) (#58)
    by localroger on Tue Jan 22, 2002 at 06:44:11 PM EST

    As for individual plant safety, there are some plants I won't go into.

    At last it is laid bare: the smoking gun. You do know what these places are like.

    So you don't like my subjective overview, which is a broad impression formed by visiting dozens of facilities, because it reflects poorly on your spiffy well-maintained individual example of the genus. My heart bleeds.

    Frankly, I don't like your subjective overview much either, because I think it's entirely too glib and callous and glosses over the very real problems which this industry can't seem to overcome.

    As for finding the plant beautiful, or as Dranok402 said "sexy," there are people who are fascinated by vampires too. Anne Rice sells them a lot of books and some of them do things like this. I understand this feeling. It's an attraction to power, power on a scale inaccessible to us mere mortals. These things transcend the normalcy of everyday existence and allow us to sit with the gods. Unfortunately, it doesn't mean such feelings are very healthy.

    I grew up in a physics lab. As I get older I am increasingly creeped out by humans' inability to tackle any large project without first setting out survey stakes and sterilizing the earth they encircle. There is something wrong with us. I don't know if it can be fixed, or if it should be fixed; I do know that you don't get well if you ignore the feelings your body gives you, and you don't improve your environment if you don't know what manner of things are out there.

    As for how risks add -- after spending nearly 10 years of spare time in casinos, consistently winning and watching a close friend win a million dollars card-counting, I think I have a better idea than you realize how risks add up. If you add a lot of little risks you get a big risk. If you are doing the math right, and you add up 1,000,000 micromorts, what you have is a roughly 50% chance of killing somebody. Very unlikely things do happen, and if a lot of them are possibile the likelihood that one of them will happen becomes very high indeed.

    The point of the story was simply to relate my experience. You made two mistakes; you do not know as much as you think you do, and I know a lot more than you think I do. The tone of the story is negative because I have a generally negative attitude of the industry, because I have seen a lot of generally negative things. While it's wonderful that some Plants work hard to overcome this it's a daily fact of life that many of them do not. And until your industry does something about them, you will have to deal with the impression they create.

    I can haz blog!
    [ Parent ]

    Thanks Dad. (5.00 / 1) (#56)
    by unstable on Tue Jan 22, 2002 at 04:40:23 PM EST

    MY father spent most of my early life working in the chemical factories in NJ.

    He did it for the pay and the benefits to support me and my brother.

    Some of the places took saftey seriously, but others...

    the horror stories he would tell us about some of these places make me shudder.

    He finally quit working out there when he just got too scared to work in his last place.

    At this place he was the saftey engineer and he knew that it wasnt a matter of if with this place it was a matter of when.

    One month after he quit they blew up the hydrogen tanks...

    He worked at the good places and bad places for me and my brother...


    Reverend Unstable
    all praise the almighty Bob
    and be filled with slack

    My plant story (4.00 / 1) (#57)
    by wyzik on Tue Jan 22, 2002 at 05:12:18 PM EST

    I spent the better part of a year doing various IT contract work for an explosives plant in my hometown of Joplin, MO. The plant had been there, in one name or another, since World War I, making old school dynamite and stuff like that. Its current owners had converted the aging production lines to make emulsion-type explosives, which looked like marshmellow whip in a paper casing. My wife was a process engineer supervising two of the explosives production facilities--the job she got right out of college. After the obligatory safety videos and tests, they just gave me a list of things to do, and turned me loose. There were many buildings/shacks/warehouses scattered over a site that covered a few square miles. "Go upgrade Windows on the computer in the nitric acid control room" or "see why the KVM switchbox in the incinerator office isn't working" were examples of my tasks. I could just drive all over the place, roaring up and down the gravel roads, careening around berms and bunkers. There were big ball-shaped ammonia tanks, and a nitric acid tower, and lots of bunkers full of old explosives. It was a lot of fun in a wild, end-of-the-earth kind of way. You learned to park upwind of the ammonium nitrate tower....

    Plant | 60 comments (50 topical, 10 editorial, 0 hidden)
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