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EPA Seeks $146,850 Penalty: Tacoma Tideflats Firm Issued Complaint For Not Reporting Release of Toxic Gas

Release Date: 10/29/1998
Contact Information: Suzanne Powers
(360) 753-9475

October 28, 1998 - - - - - - - - - 98-58

When a plume of nitrogen dioxide gas escaped into the air over the Tacoma tideflats early last summer, it was workers at a neighboring business firm who called the Tacoma Fire Department, and not personnel at the hazardous waste storage facility from which the toxic gas was released.

It was the failure of Philip Services Corporation to promptly report the release to emergency management agencies that has prompted the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to issue Philip Service Corporation an administrative complaint seeking $146,850 in civil penalties.

The complaint was announced today in Seattle by Randy Smith, director of EPA’s regional Office of Environmental Cleanup. Whenever there’s a release of hazardous chemicals in excess of specified quantities, Smith explained, such releases must be reported immediately to state and local emergency management agencies in any area where the community is likely to be affected by the release. Immediate notification must also be made to the National Response Center.

Nitrogen dioxide gas is a deep lung irritant. Short-term exposures can produce headaches, vomiting, dizziness, weakness, loss of judgment and coordination and drowsiness. Exposures to high concentrations can cause respiratory arrest.

Because the released gas threatened people in the area, 500 occupants of the nearby Propeller Club were evacuated as were the employees at a solvent recycling plant next door to Philip Services Corporation. As a precaution, the Tacoma Fire Department set up roadblocks and cordoned off the surrounding area.

The release of the nitrogen dioxide took place at Philip Services Corporation’s hazardous waste treatment and storage facility (at 170l Alexander Avenue in Tacoma) on the
evening of last June 26 during the transfer of the contents of a tank truck into a storage tank. A chemical reaction occurred which created a 75-foot tall orange-colored plume of gas that was said to have covered the two acres occupied by Philip Services Corporation. It took almost two and a half hours to bring the situation under control.

An estimated 641 pounds of the nitrogen dioxide gas were released. Any release of more than 10 pounds of nitrogen dioxide requires immediate notification to emergency authorities.

Philip Services Corporation allowed 17 days to pass -- until July 13 -- before notifying the proper emergency management officials in Pierce County and at state offices in Olympia. According to the complaint, Philip Services Corporation waited more than 13 hours, until mid-morning on the day after the release, before reporting the release to the National Response Center in Washington, D.C.

Once Philip Services Corporation receives the complaint, it has 20 days to contest the penalties sought by EPA. The company can request a formal administrative hearing or an informal settlement conference.

The complaint was issued under the authority of two federal statutes, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) and the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act of 1986 (EPCRA), . EPCRA was enacted after the 1984 chemical tragedy at a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, where a release of toxic gas killed 2,500 persons and injured thousands more.

In addition to the law’s notification requirements, EPCRA calls for companies to take measures to help prevent disastrous consequences from releases of dangerous chemicals like nitrogen dioxide. Measures include sending annual reports of inventories of hazardous chemicals to designated emergency response agencies. With the information provided, the emergency agencies can make plans for responding to fires, explosions or other accidents.