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Will Y2K and Chemicals Be a Volatile Mix?


Sheri Nakken (Y2K Network)
Senator Bennett Opening Stmt/Hearings on Chem Indus/Y2K US Senate Special Committee on the Year 2000 Technology Problem


Opening Statement Senator Bob Bennett, Chairman
Hearing: Will Y2K and Chemicals Be a Volatile Mix?

Good morning and welcome to our hearing on the impact of the Year 2000 technology problem on the chemical industry. I am pleased to be holding this hearing here in New Jersey, not only because of the importance of this industry to your state, but also because it is nice to go outside of Washington DC to meet the people on the front lines of the battle against the Y2K computer problem.

I have just come from a tour of Sybron Chemicals in Birmingham and was impressed with the level of automation in this plant, which I understand is typical of other plants in the industry. While this automation enables safe and efficient operation of the plant, it also increases susceptibility to Y2K anomalies. I can only hope that the other tens of thousands of chemical producers and users in America are doing as well as Sybron in addressing this insidious problem.

We have an excellent group of witnesses here today who have taken time out of their busy schedules to help us shed light on the Y2K problem in the chemical industry. Before we begin, let me talk briefly about the importance of the chemical industry.

The crude oil refining industry keeps American transportation running. Our health -- and sometimes our lives -- are dependent on pharmaceuticals produced by the chemical industries. And, the manufacture of virtually every consumer product is in some way dependent on vital chemical ingredients. Chemical products are present in everything from shampoo to floor polish.

On the economic side, the $392 billion chemical industry is the largest in the manufacturing sector and employs over one million workers. It is also our largest exporter accounting for $69.5 billion or 10% of the total exports in 1997, easily outdistancing the second leading industry (agriculture) and generating a trade surplus on average of more than $16 billion annually over the last ten years.

The chemical industry has set high standards for safety, and has a very proactive program to preserve this record and to continuously improve on health, safety, and environmental performance. This industry is one that is already accustomed to dealing with risks, and I am hopeful that we won't see any Y2K-related problems. Nevertheless, the chemical industry warrants our attention because accidents can have such devastating effects. Even though it happened over 15 years ago in another country, most of us remember the Bhopal accident that killed several thousand people and injured tens of thousands of others. We have never seen a chemical release of that size in the United States, but the potential for harm is great. An estimated 85 million Americans more than 30 percent of the U.S. population -- live within 5 miles of one of the 66,000 sites that handle hazardous chemicals. That's why any potential Y2K problems at chemical facilities cannot be taken lightly.

In addition to safe "on-site" operations, chemical processing plants must prepare to deal with external services which may be Y2K vulnerable. Let me give you an example. On November 24, 1998, a power outage caused the shutdown of an Anacortes, Washington refinery. As the refinery was returning to operation after a cool-down period, an accident occurred that took the lives of six workers. The power outage may not have directly caused the accident, but it brought about the circumstances that put six men in danger, and ultimately cost them their lives. This example highlights the startup and shutdown risks in chemical plants, just like airline accidents, that are more likely during takeoffs and landings. This industry must be ready for any sudden Y2K-induced shutdowns.

In this industry, with the many harmful and toxic substances that are involved in chemical processes, there is very often little room for error, and the potential for a Y2K impact must be determined and planned for. Our Committee has been very concerned about the Y2K impact on numerous government agencies and private sector organizations. However, potential Y2K failures in the chemical industry and their resulting public health risks are worthy of the Committee's thorough scrutiny. That's why we're here today to address the question, "Will Y2K and chemicals be a volatile mix?"


"There are only two ways to live your life: as though nothing is a miracle, or as though everything is a miracle." --Albert Einstein

Sheri Nakken Coordinator - Western Nevada County Y2K Preparedness Network
PO Box 1563
Nevada City, CA 95959

Business Owner - Well Within & Earth Mysteries & Sacred Site Tours Broadcaster/DJ/Reporter - KVMR FM, Nevada City, CA
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