A few months ago, I wanted to know who owned and shipped the vinyl chloride that burned bright in the East Palestine, Ohio, night sky on Feb. 3. It should have been a simple answer. But it wasn’t. Nobody was talking. The Environmental Protection Agency, Norfolk Southern and the National Transportation Board all deferred to one another or said they couldn’t release any information.
I did some additional research and was able to cross check an EPA list of the tank car IDs from the derailed train with a website that lists railcar owners by this unique identifier. Three of the five cars carrying vinyl chloride appeared to be owned by Oxy Vinyls, which touts itself as the third-largest PVC supplier in the United States. On April 18, the New York Times ran an article citing an EPA official who said Oxy had more than 700,000 pounds of vinyl chloride on the train.
I wanted to confirm this report with Oxy along with a request that the company participate in an interview for an upcoming article I was writing on material substitution. After my second email to the company, I received the following response from Oxy’s communications and community affairs department:
Thanks for reaching out. We have nothing to offer.
That’s a polite way of saying “no comment.” It’s also shortsighted. In times of crises, transparency engenders trust – a sentiment the chemical industry could use today. I wanted to help readers understand the journey the chemicals followed before the train derailed and their intended destination.
Understanding the chemical supply chain and the presence of these materials in everyday applications increases awareness about their usefulness and existing safe-handling procedures. Such conversations also open opportunities for dialogue regarding safety gaps in the value chain and innovative solutions to prevent future disasters.
Caginess invites trouble, especially when it occurs over decades.
Consider this headline on The Guardian news site last week: “Chemical industry used big tobacco’s tactics to conceal evidence of PFAS risks.” That’s a heavy accusation when you think about the legacy of the tobacco industry: Decades of deceit by concealing a product the industry knew was addictive and causing cancer.
The Guardian article cited a University of California, San Francisco study that pored over documents from DuPont and 3M, the largest per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), manufacturers. The report, which appeared in The Annals of Global Health, states that:
“The lack of transparency in industry-driven research on industrial chemicals has significant legal, political and public health consequences. Industry strategies to suppress scientific research findings or early warnings about the hazards of industrial chemicals can be analyzed and exposed, in order to guide prevention.”
Secrecy certainly has some strategic merit. Leaked trade secrets and intellectual property theft are persistent threats in every industry. The chemical industry faces the added risk of terrorist groups using their products maliciously. Rest assured, it’s not in our best interests as a B2B publication to put chemical manufacturers (our readers) at a competitive disadvantage or compromise public safety.
But we can’t help the industry improve its existing processes if the people running processing plants won’t share best practices, obstacles and tough lessons learned.
We talk a lot about transparency in the in the age of digitalization, including the desire for end-to-end visibility across the value chain. Now, I’m offering a challenge to you, our readers working in chemical process plants, to be a bit more transparent with us. Tell us about your success stories and pain points. If you disagree with our coverage, let us know so we can share your perspective.
You do have something to offer. Your mistakes and victories serve as benchmarks for progress. Your silence invites more questions than answers.