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Environmental Issues

Safety comes first in chemical storage

February 24, 2011
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Last month, an unsuspecting contractor was delivering chemicals to a water treatment plant in Andover, Minn., when he accidentally poured fluorine into a chlorine tank. A chemical reaction was triggered, releasing hazardous fumes and causing the facility to be evacuated. Luckily, the worker only sustained minor injuries and the plant was back in operation just a few hours later, but more serious, and perhaps deadly, consequences could have easily resulted from this simple mistake.

Incidences like the one in Andover illustrate the importance of proper handling and storage of water treatment chemicals. Dangerous reactions, the release of deadly fumes and even fires can result when chemicals are mishandled or stored improperly. There are a few points a facility manager needs to keep in mind when dealing with hazardous substances.

Compatibility groups
Water treatment chemicals are divided into six compatibility groups: Acids, bases, salts and polymers, adsorption powders, oxidizing powders and compressed gases. Chemicals from different compatibility groups should never be stored together. According to Ben Olson, project sales manager for Terracon Corporation, failure to do so could result in the death or injury of system personnel and/or damage to the system. “The basic guideline is that you consult with a compatibility chart or simply empirical data when it comes to certain chemicals,” he says. Additionally, liquid chemicals and dry chemicals should never be stored together regardless of which compatibility group they belong to.

It is imperative that all of your employees are familiar with the compatibility groups. Post the chart near the storage facility for easy reference. “You need to make sure whoever’s dealing with [chemicals] really understands what they’re doing,” advises John Wobig, technical sales manager for Snyder Industries.

Temperature and ventilation
All chemicals should be stored in secure, dry, well-ventilated areas free from excessive heat, ignition sources and flammable or combustible materials.

It is of the upmost importance that a storage area be free from moisture as many chemicals react violently with water. “If you pour water into sulfuric acid, for example,” explains Olson, “you end up with an exothermic reaction — a violent increase in temperature that can have all kinds of negative ramifications.”

Containers must also be sealed to the external atmosphere as many common water treatment chemicals release toxic fumes. “Hydrochloric acid in strong concentrations is actually lethal if it’s vented into the atmosphere,” notes Olson. Additionally, storage areas should be well-ventilated in the event that deadly gases escape a container. “You can’t vent these acids into an area where people are working,” Olson says.

A variety of vessels are available for the storage of water treatment chemicals, but poly tanks — those made from polyethylene, polypropylene and similar materials — are perhaps the safest option. According to Olson, poly materials are inert to almost every known chemical. “You can practically store anything in poly tanks with a few exceptions of course,” he says.

Poly tanks are also comparatively more cost effective than other types of containers. “Many municipal facilities are tax-payer funded,” adds Wobig, “so they’re looking for the best return on their investment. Polyethylene tanks will meet that need.”

Some highly reactive chemicals will require dual containment — basically a container within a container. Dual containment may involve a safety dike around a container, double contained tanks or double contained piping. Pumps and other equipment are often stored inside enclosures to protect against failures as well.

Material Safety Data Sheets
Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) provide invaluable information about how chemicals should be handled and stored. MSDSs will tell you the chemical’s composition, how it reacts under certain situations and what you should do if you get exposed to it. They also include information about the chemical’s supplier and an emergency number to call in case there is a spill.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires that MSDSs be kept for all water treatment chemicals, and facility operators may face penalties if they fail to do so. “When OSHA comes in, they are going to make sure that you have your MSDSs on file and that your employees have access to them,” says Wobig.

The results of a chemical accident can be catastrophic. Always err on the side of caution when handling potentially hazardous substances and make sure your staff is properly trained to deal with them.

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