I-Team Report: A Level of Concern

March 10, 2010 9:28:20 PM PST
It is shaping up as the mystery in Morris. Eight days after cyanide first turned up in factory wastewater at Lyondell Basell Company, no one seems to know why it's there. And that is causing a level of concern.

Lyondell manufactures ethylene, the primary component of plastic resins used in food packaging, water bottles and toys. Every day, millions of gallons of water are used in the process, mainly to cool production equipment. That wastewater is then treated and disposed of.

"It's discharged out through the back of our facility to eventually, into the Illinois River," said Jeff Stirling, Lyondell plant manager. Watch the entire interview

The river - part of a waterway system that connects the Mississippi to Lake Michigan - feeds Chicago's primary drinking water source. And so early last week, when company officials detected small quantities of the especially poisonous chemical cyanide in factory wastewater, they knew there was potential for a big problem.

"You don't want any cyanide in the water. Cyanide is extremely toxic no matter how one is exposed to it. It's so toxic that it was the chemical of choice in gas chambers for executions," said Dr. Susan Buchanan, UIC environmental science.

Lyondell executives say they immediately shut down their water treatment facility, cut off the wastewater flow into the Illinois River and began pumping cyanide contaminated water into a storage tank.

It was two days later that company officials notified the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency of the unexplainable appearance of cyanide in plant wastewater. That is according to a state EPA memo that also reveals Lyondell has now filled eight additional multi-million gallon tanks with contaminated water.

"We were able to contain it in our tanks. We're able to treat it here on site, deal with the issue and stay well within our permitted levels," said Stirling. Watch the entire interview

According to a federal government database, in the past ten years there have been nearly 100 reports of chemical releases at the plant in Morris. Many of the incidents were caused by equipment malfunctions resulting in chemicals such as benzene to be released into the air or water but never a reported incident of cyanide.

Company officials claim the cyanide-infused water is being successfully neutralized with peroxide, treated, and once again is being dumped into the Illinois River as allowed under their EPA permit.

But they still haven't solved the cyanide mystery and have no explanation why it suddenly appeared in wastewater because cyanide isn't even used there to produce polyethylene.

GOUDIE: "If you don't know what is causing the problem, how can you declare an all clear?
STIRLING: "We understand how the process is managed on the front end of our system. We were able to make some adjustments on the front end side of things so were no longer generating the component. As a result, now we're fine."

The company did not notify its community safety committee. Executives say that's because the committee only meets once a quarter and that there was no emergency.

They did notify the plant's more than 300 employees, but several who contacted the I-Team say they have been provided few details and are concerned for their safety.

"The last few years, it's gotten worse and worse and worse," said Peter White, retired pipefitter.

White worked as contract pipefitter in the plant for 23 years, before retiring a year ago, about the time Houston-based Lyondell filed for bankruptcy.

"It's into penny pinching. It's if you have a leak in a pipe, you only replace that spot that's leaking. When a pipe gets down to paper thin, you're just, you're playing with luck, ya know. When will blow?" said White.

After the I-Team told company executives about Mr. White's comments, Wednesday afternoon they requested a second opportunity to emphasize the plant's maintenance that they say has won recognition for safety from the EPA and OSHA. Watch the entire interview "I think if you look at the core fundamentals of our performance, that tends to suggest that we have a strong performing asset and it's doing what it's meant to do," said Stirling.

The state EPA wants to make sure there is no leeching of cyanide water from those storage tanks and that the peroxide treatment is actually working.

EPA officials say they will be sending inspectors to the Morris plant. Current employees - who asked not to be identified saying they fear retaliation - say the plant is years' overdue for a major overhaul. The company disagrees but has scheduled one for May.