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June Roundup: Great Molasses Flood, Barbie Impacts Chemical Industry, EPA’s Tight Grip On Toxic Chemicals

June 28, 2024
Distilled News examines the top three stories trending on Hosted by Jonathan Katz, executive editor of Chemical Processing.


The National Transportation Safety Board recently finalized its investigation into last year's train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, that led to a release of toxic chemicals and a controlled burning of those substances. But our first piece doesn't focus on what went wrong in East Palestine. Rather it's a look back at another incident that could have served as lessons learned for the railway and investigators. It was the Great Molasses Flood of 1919 in Boston's North End. As Seán Ottewell, Chemical Processing's editor-at-large, retells it in his June 7 article, on Jan. 15, 1919, a 50-foot-tall storage tank containing fermenting molasses ruptured releasing 2.3 million gallons of syrup in Boston's North End. According to a report from the U.S Census Bureau, a 40-foot-high wave of molasses weighing 26 million pounds and moving at 35 miles per hour flattened pretty much everything in its path and flushed victims into Boston Harbor. The tank finally failed after reaching capacity following a large delivery. The disaster resulted in 21 deaths and 150 injuries with cleanup efforts lasting months.

Great Molasses Flood 1919

Built in 1915 by U.S Industrial Alcohol, the tank fermented molasses to produce industrial alcohol, a precursor to acetone used as a gelatinizing agent in cordite. Cordite was in huge demand as a ballistic propellant during World War I, and lucrative contracts were up for grabs. As Ottewell notes, several factors contributed to the disaster. They include incorrect alloy and gauge of the steel used in construction, a lack of proper leakage tests before commissioning, inadequate engineering expertise amongst supervisors and inspectors, and ongoing leaks that were ignored or purposefully hidden. An investigation found that heating pipes inside the tank may have generated an explosive mixture of air and gas. After six years of litigation, the Massachusetts Superior Court ruled the tank's construction deficient and U.S. Industrial Alcohol was ordered to pay approximately $7,000 to each victim's family, or $1 million total, the equivalent to about $18 million today.

The Great Molasses Flood of 1919 serves as a stark reminder that even a century later, the consequences of overlooking safety protocols and dismissing warning signs can be catastrophic, a lesson that resonates with recent incidents like the East Palestine derailment and underscores the ongoing need for rigorous safety standards in all industrial operations.

Barbie Disrupts Chemical Industry

Next up is an article by Chemical Processing Editor-in-Chief Traci Purdum, who recaps key points from The American Chemistry Council's (ACC) State of the Chemical Industry Webinar. Purdum quotes Martha Gilchrist Moore, ACC's Chief Economist, who states, "In the past year people have been spending more money on services and entertainment like the Barbie movie, rather than products." That doesn't bode well for the chemical sector, which depends on consumer spending on products that use industry materials. Moore tracks 18 end-use industries. Last year, 10 of those industries contracted. For 2024, 2025, and 2026, the prediction is only five of those industries will contract. Semiconductors, aerospace, and motor vehicles are performing well. Industries like furniture, apparel, and textile mill products will continue to see contraction, as will appliances due to the housing market.

Purdum notes that housing starts declined for two years to 1.41 million in 2022. Only a modest increase to 1.42 million is expected amid persisting high interest rates. But there were some positive signs. According to ACC's Economic Sentiment Index, most members reported expansion in new orders, production levels, and capacity utilization in the first quarter, despite higher input and labor costs. Capital spending also turned positive. Inventory levels are becoming more balanced after a period of increases. Even so, regulations continue to be a concern for ACC members, the article notes. While Moore stresses that chemical companies are becoming much more sustainable, she stated that members reported that 25% of their capital budgets are allocated to sustainable manufacturing, including advanced recycling, the use of hydrogen, and even small modular nuclear reactors.

EPA's Tight Grip on Toxic Chemicals

And finally, we take a look at an article I wrote called EPA Tightens Grip on Toxic Chemicals, Industry Feels the Heat. Published on June 6, this piece explores the increasing pressure on chemical plants using toxic compounds like chloroprene and vinyl chloride. New EPA standards for hazardous organic substances will affect over 200 facilities, including Denka Performance Elastomer's neoprene plant in Louisiana's so-called Cancer Alley. Denka had threatened to shut down the plant if forced to comply with the EPA's 90-day deadline for fence line monitoring, according to an Associated Press report on May 29. The Japanese rubber manufacturer is among the facilities that fall under the new standards for six hazardous organic substances, which include ethylene oxide, chloroprene, benzene 1,3-butadiene, ethylene dichloride and vinyl chloride. Vinyl chloride, a key focus since the East Palestine Train derailment, is now a priority chemical under the Toxic Substances Control Act for a comprehensive risk evaluation.

A May 28 letter signed by 18 environmental groups, including Beyond Plastics, The Environmental Defense Fund and Earthjustice called on the EPA to extend requirements for safety data on vinyl chloride to processors and distributors. The letter also requested that the agency remove certain reporting exemptions for vinyl chloride. These include mixtures that contain vinyl chloride and any safety studies that these manufacturers already possess but are exempt from reporting. "The request calls on the EPA to consider all of the conditions of use and their potential risks," says Eve Gartner, an attorney with Earthjustice, a group that has filed several lawsuits against the chemical industry.

In response to the letter, The Vinyl Institute, which represents manufacturers of vinyl and vinyl chloride, stated that the industry is willing and committed to providing the EPA with the information it's seeking. The trade group disputed any claims that the industry is trying to withhold information. As Gil Connolly, Press Secretary of The Vinyl Institute stated, "Any claims of industry suppression of data are disingenuous and do not reflect the efforts of The Vinyl Institute and our members have made to collaborate with EPA during this review. We believe the risk evaluation process will further demonstrate that the production and use of vinyl chloride is safely managed."

That's it for this edition of Distilled News. Visit for more insights. And don't forget to register for the Morning Briefing and Chemical Processing weekly newsletters to stay ahead of the curve. Until next time, this is Jonathan Katz telling you to stay informed, stay inspired, and let's shape the future of chemistry together.

About the Author

Jonathan Katz | Executive Editor

Jonathan Katz, executive editor, brings nearly two decades of experience as a B2B journalist to Chemical Processing magazine. He has expertise on a wide range of industrial topics. Jon previously served as the managing editor for IndustryWeek magazine and, most recently, as a freelance writer specializing in content marketing for the manufacturing sector.

His knowledge areas include industrial safety, environmental compliance/sustainability, lean manufacturing/continuous improvement, Industry 4.0/automation and many other topics of interest to the Chemical Processing audience.

When he’s not working, Jon enjoys fishing, hiking and music, including a small but growing vinyl collection.

Jon resides in the Cleveland, Ohio, area.

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