It’s been nearly two months since a hazardous chemical leak at Croda Ltd.'s Atlas Point plant forced a seven-hour closure on the twin spans of the nearby Delaware Memorial Bridge that carries traffic between the New Jersey Turnpike and I-95 and other highways.
But Delaware officials aren’t ready to clear the British-owned plant’s ethanol-to-ethylene-oxide unit, where the the Nov. 25 leak occurred, to resume production.
An investigation into the gas leak is ongoing, says Michael Globetti, a spokesman for the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control. The state agency “has not allowed Croda’s ethylene oxide unit to reopen.”
Two days after the leak, Croda said an initial investigation blamed the problem and the precautionary closing of the bridges on a bad O-ring seal. The company also said at first that no one had been injured. Later the company said five people sought treatment for exposure. A company spokesperson did not respond to inquiries this week about the plant’s status.
After the November incident, residents who live near the plant demanded that state officials explain why the plant was allowed to expand so close to busy highways and residential neighborhoods. The Atlas Point plant was begun in the 1930s, before the neighboring bridges to New Jersey were built. The 140-acre plant faces the sprawling Chambers Works across the river in New Jersey, whose remaining facilities are mostly operated by Chemours, a DuPont Co. spin-off.
Ethylene oxide is used in making surfactants, mixing agents used in industrial chemicals and consumer products. It is a volatile chemical, listed as a carcinogen in cases of prolonged exposure, and is prone to damaging explosion when it comes in contact with flame. State and volunteer fire officials said 2,700 pounds of the chemical — about 40 minutes' peak production at the new unit — was dispersed harmlessly Nov. 25 by pouring large quantities of water on the facility and its connecting pipes.
After Sunoco stopped ethylene oxide production at nearby Marcus Hook following a fire in 2010, Croda said in 2015 it planned to build a $170 million ethylene oxide production facility at Atlas Point so it wouldn’t have to ship the volatile material from plants near the Gulf of Mexico in rail cars and could instead ship less-volatile ethanol to the plant, to be converted into ethylene oxide under a process already in use in China and India.
Then-New Castle County Executive Tom Gordon had wanted to see the Delaware River margin of the Atlas Point property used to expand cargo handling for the state-owned Port of Wilmington. Instead, the port settled on the closed former DuPont/Chemours titanium dioxide plant at Edge Moor north of Wilmington. State officials approved the Atlas Point expansion in hopes of boosting industrial employment in a state which has lost auto, steel and chemical factory jobs. Workers at Croda are represented by a local of the United Steelworkers.