Less than a quarter mile from the sandy beaches of some well-known surfing hotspots, three natural gas-powered plants generate electricity for more than three million homes and businesses in central California. I recently had the opportunity to visit the members of the environmental committees of each site to discuss how they can better prepare for spills.
Each of these facilities is very committed to preserving the environment. They have all voluntarily installed air emissions control equipment to cut nitrogen oxide and carbon dioxide emissions by over 90 percent. One of the sites even converts urea to ammonia onsite instead of having ammonia delivered in bulk, which prevents the ammonia from harming the nearby residential community or the facility itself.
The committees of each facility are planning out how to update their sites to improve efficiency, increase renewable resource usage and reduce ocean water usage for cooling. The plants also want the ability to start and stop operations in a matter of minutes compared to the 12 to 36 hours it currently takes. These efforts will put them well ahead of California’s environmental mandate to reduce the use of ocean waters for cooling and use renewable energy resources before 2021.
None of the facilities have had a release, but they are all mindful of the impact that a spill would have on their local communities. As the plants move forward, they are looking to standardize the equipment and supply locations for quick and effective spill response.
As I toured the site, I got to see a lot more than an amazing view of the Pacific Ocean from the top of one of the buildings. Banners celebrated safety achievements – the facility hasn’t had a recordable injury since 2007 – as well as environmental, sustainability and safety core values and goals.
I also saw many types of secondary containment in use, and it was interesting how they incorporated it into each area. The facilities don’t generate much waste, but what they do produce is stored in a waste collection building on spill containment pallets until they can send it for recycling. Bulk fluid dispensing areas are recessed and have walls and access ramps that provide secondary containment in each area. Satellite accumulation areas and smaller fluid dispensing areas are also protected with secondary containment sumps and spill collection trays.
Secondary containment provides a primary line of defense against spills. Because each of these facilities is near the ocean, compliance with stringent stormwater regulations is paramount. Employing secondary containment devices is a best management practice that prevents spills from leaving the facilities.
Each site also prepares for spills by having spill kits in each area where fluids are stored, handled or transferred. Like many facilities, the spill kits were acquired and placed in various locations over time. Some are in plastic cases and others are galvanized metal trash cans stenciled with the words “spill kit” on the side. While there is nothing wrong with this approach (neither the Occupational Safety and Health Administration nor the Environmental Protection Agency mandate what a kit needs to look like), one of the environmental committees’ goals is to standardize the look and locations of spill kits to make them easier to find, especially for employees who work in more than one of the company’s facilities.
Another issue that they face with spill kits is pilferage, which is a common problem for many facilities. Because spill kits are in areas where small leaks and spills are the most likely to occur and the stockroom is all the way on the other side of the facility, it’s sometimes easier to “borrow” a couple of socks and mats from a spill kit than retrieve them from the stockroom. This results in kits that are empty or nearly empty, making them less useful or completely useless in the event of a spill.
We discussed using tamperproof seals or zip ties on the kits so that it’s easy to determine if a kit has been accessed during inspections. We also looked at areas where absorbents could be routinely stocked for everyday use to keep kit contents intact and ready for emergency response.
In addition to production, fluid dispensing and waste collection areas, being prepared for spills in the quality control laboratories where small amounts of acids and bases are used is both a safety and an environmental necessity. Specialized kits that neutralize corrosive liquids and absorbents that are compatible with their spills will help keep technicians in these areas ready to respond quickly and safely.
Utilizing secondary containment and having spill kits in multiple areas of the facility are two best management practices that help these sites prepare for incidental spills. The committees, however, are also mindful that these two practices don’t negate the need to prepare for a worst-case scenario discharge. With the facilities’ proximity to the ocean, such a discharge would involve calling in their contracted spill response team, as well as coordinating with local and state response agencies.
Containment booms are among the choices they’re considering to increase readiness to respond to spills that reach the water. Working with community and contracted responders will help ensure that the booms they choose will work with any other containment booms the outside agencies use or have access to use.
As each of these facilities moves forward with standardizing spill response supply look and locations and embracing renewable energy resources, preparing for spills — both incidental and emergency — will help them to achieve their environmental goals. These efforts will also help them remain a sustainable, proactive community resource well into the future.
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