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EPA fines SGL for gas leaks

by CHARLES H. FEATHERSTONE
Staff Writer | February 22, 2022 1:07 AM

OLYMPIA — The Environmental Protection Agency has fined SGL Carbon about $139,000 for improperly reporting three hydrogen cyanide gas leaks beginning late 2017 at the company’s Moses Lake facility.

According to Erin Williams, an emergency response coordinator for the EPA in the Pacific Northwest, SGL is required to notify the EPA within 15 minutes of a reportable quantity, or RQ, release — 10 pounds over the course of 24 hours — of a dangerous chemical, something SGL did not do during any of the three reported incidents.

Based in Wiesbaden, Germany, SGL Carbon is located on the northwest side of the Port of Moses Lake in a lightly populated area of Grant County.

In the first of the three incidents covered by the consent decree filed with the EPA, Williams said the company reportedly released 163 pounds of hydrogen cyanide from the carbon fiber facility from late Nov. 18, 2017, through early morning Nov. 25, 2017, and did not inform the EPA of the release for 57 hours.

The second incident involved a release of 290 pounds of hydrogen cyanide beginning early on Jan. 6, 2018, through late evening Jan. 29, 2018, and the company did not notify EPA of the release until 40 minutes after it was stopped.

The final incident involved a nearly five-hour release of 39 pounds of hydrogen cyanide on Oct. 11, 2019, which EPA states in the consent decree SGL did not report until three hours after it had been stopped.

“Ideally, it doesn’t happen often and it’s reported in a timely manner,” Williams said.

While SGL admitted no wrongdoing in the consent decree, company spokesperson Julia Koch wrote in an email to the Columbia Basin Herald that the company is aware of a problem with an actuator on one of its production lines, and is working to remove the troubled device.

“Immediately after we were aware of this, we calculated the quantities released, determined that they exceeded the RQ and solved the problem,” Koch wrote. “The only reason for the fine was that the notification must be sent to EPA ‘immediately,’ within 15 minutes of being aware that the release exceeded the RQ.”

“Unfortunately, we have exceeded this time and sent the report too late for the EPA,” Koch added. “There was no health risk at any time.”

Koch wrote that hydrogen cyanide is a byproduct of the process the company uses to create carbon fiber. Most of the chemical is “destroyed at a 99% efficiency within seconds of its generation,” Koch wrote.

At its Moses Lake facility, SGL cooks plastic fibers made in Japan at very high temperatures through a series of ovens to produce thin carbon fiber yarn, which is woven into sheets of fabric that is then layered with epoxy to create lightweight carbon fiber panels used to make cars, trucks and airplane parts.

“As a technology company, we are aware of our environmental and social responsibility and are committed to create safe and healthy working conditions for our employees and to minimize the impact our business activities have on the environment and the communities around our sites,” Koch wrote.

The fine was levied under a 1986 law, the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act, which is intended to help communities plan for emergencies involving hazardous chemicals.

“Any time one of the industries or a business in the county has an unintended or uncontrolled release, they are required to notify several agencies, including Grant County Emergency Management,” said Kyle Forman, a spokesperson for the Grant County Sheriff’s Office, which oversees the county’s emergency management agency.

“If it poses a risk, we take action with local agencies, and maybe even order an evacuation,” Foreman said.

Most of the incidents GCEM deals with, Foreman said, are fairly small, like gasoline spills at service stations, which typically evaporate before emergency management can respond.

SGL Carbon, which is publicly traded on the Frankfurt Stock Exchange, ended Monday’s trading at 5.45 euros per share ($6.17), down 24 cents, or 4.2%, from the previous Friday’s close.

Charles H. Featherstone can be reached at cfeatherstone@columbiabasinherald.com.

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