Monday, May 4, 2009

Case study: DuPont Plant, New Johnsonville, TN

For a number of years I took students in my graduate course Aqueous Geochemistry to tour the DuPont Plant in New Johnsonville, TN, about two hours west of Nashville. The plant manufactures Titanium Dioxide TiO2 by mining the mineral ilmenite FeTiO3 and reacting it Hydrochloric acid HCl as follows: FeTiO3 + 2HCl = FeCl2 (aq) + TiO2 + H2O. The Titanium dioxide is a pigment that gives Kilz paint, Oreos, and many types of toothpaste their brilliant white color. There are two problems with this process. One is that the product solution is still very acidic. The other problem is that ilmenite contains many toxic heavy metals that are soluble in the acidic solution. In the 1960’s when people didn’t know better, DuPont was allowed to dispose of hundreds of thousands of gallons of this toxic acid solution directly into the Tennessee River, which of course killed all fish and bottom feeders downstream. Later they switched to the more environmentally friendly but more expensive process of deep-well injection. They drilled wells between 1000-2000 feet deep and then pumped the acidic waste into a confined, deep limestone layer. The thinking was that the limestone (which contains calcite CaCO3 and dolomite CaMg(CO3)2) would neutralize the acid: CaCO3 + 2H+ = Ca2+ + H2O + CO2. The confining (impermeable) layer above would keep the waste isolated from shallow aquifers that supplied drinking water. Once again, there were two problems with this plan, which my class would remind the DuPont engineers of every year, and every year they would claim ignorance. First, the acidic solution dissolves the limestone, which results in the formation of large caves deep underground. Eventually the weight of the overlying rock layers causes them to collapse, breaking into pieces, falling, and filling the caves. This shatters the confining layer and makes it permeable, so that the wastes can rise up into the aquifers. The other problem is that, as shown in the reaction, limestone dissolution produces CO2 gas, and the pressure of that gas can build until it shatters the overlying rock and escapes. Either way, it seemed likely that the confining layer would eventually be compromised. So, to their credit, DuPont came up with a new solution that was even more environmentally friendly but (they claimed) even more expensive. Since around the year 2000 DuPont has been reacting the ilmenite with sodium carbonate, and according to the DuPont engineers the only by-product is harmless FeCO3 (the mineral siderite), which is used to make bricks for construction. However, recently it was learned that this process produces dioxin as a by-product. Pure Dioxin is the strongest poison known to man (it is the neurotoxin in Agent Orange), and the New Johnsonville Plant is the fourth-largest producer of dioxin in the U.S..

This case study illustrates many different points. First, it is difficult to anticipate all of the potential outcomes of a complex industrial process. That is why ecologists advocate the precautionary principle. Second, industrial chemistry sorely needs to be “greened”. Green chemistry is a field just now coming into its own, and it has the potential to reduce greatly the environmental impact of the chemical industry. Third, despite repeated attempts at trying to “green” the chemical process, the production of Titanium Dioxide still causes serious environmental problems. DuPont is being sued by numerous plaintiffs who live near or work at their Titanium Dioxide plant in DeLisle, Mississippi, who claim that dioxin has seriously damaged their health or caused the death of loved ones (http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-7693391300780002092). At New Johnsonville, TN, many citizens are afraid to talk about the health risks posed by the DuPont plant because they work for the plant, their livelihood depends on its success, and they fear retaliation (http://www.dupontsafetyrevealed.org/newjohnsonville.htm). This raises many questions: Should we allow chemical companies to manufacture goods like Titanium Dioxide that are nonessential (it is simply used for aesthetic reasons) but that cause great harm to human health and the environment? Or should we close the plants, even if it meant that thousands of people would lose their jobs? The plants in New Johnsonville DeLisle are by far the largest local employers, so closing them would be an economic disaster for those communities. In fact, years ago when DuPont reapplied to the State of Tennessee for a permit for deep well injection, a representative of the Tennessee Environmental Council asked me if I would testify against the application. I refused, saying that deep well injection seemed to be the best of the alternatives known at the time, and that I couldn’t bear the thought of helping to put all of those people in New Johnsonville out of work. Yes, I am pro-environment, so I believe we should always be looking for ways to protect the environment, but the overall benefits of change have to outweigh the overall negatives, and in this case, the economic vitality of New Johnsonville seemed to me to outweigh the potential risks of deep-well injection.

27 comments:

  1. CLOSE THE PLANT!!!!! I live in Waverly, TN and its everywhere, water , air, get outta there!!!

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  2. Look at how much cancer is in Humphrey's county. Wonder why that is.

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  3. You should ave testified anyway to protect the people as they are now talking of closing the plant anyway.

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    1. Talking of closing the New Johnsonville plant? Hard to imagine they would close the largest and one of the lowest-cost titanium dioxide plants in the world at a time when there is a world shortage of high-quality TiO2 pigment and prices are going through the roof!

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  4. Would Ayers propose bringing back lead-based paints by getting rid of TiO2? Nah, I guess not, since paint is only used for "aesthetic" purposes.

    Actually, without paint to protect things against corrosion, pigments in plastic to prevent photochemical breakdown, the environment would be far worse off because we'd be making these things over and over again, and dealing with the waste of prematurely dead products.

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  5. No, I would look for a more environmentally-friendly method for producing TiO2, mine TiO2 (rutile) deposits instead of FeTiO3, or find a safe substitute for TiO2 as a pigment. There are lots of possibilities and opportunities for those who are willing to think outside the box.

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    1. How much work have you done to come up with a solution to this problem ? How much research have you done on coatings and their production ? DuPont - being they have a lot of proprietary information on their processes is highly protective of this hard learned information. Do you really think they would share this information with you ? Whomever shared process information with you either shared a lot of bologna with you or you speculated . There are few that really know what goes on in the production of TiO2 at the Jville plant that actually work outside the area that the magic happens. I read this and find it amusing as to how little you really know about this - in your words ( highly toxic ) process. Do more research on the ore that is used in the process. The heavy metals that are in the ore came out of the same earth that your water supply comes from . DuPont didn't put these heavy metals in the ore now did they . This awful waste product you speak of is actually used by several large cities to treat waste water , but you didn't do your homework there either. It seems to me that someone pissed you off at DuPont so you use this (green solution) mumbo jumbo to scare your readers into thinking chemical companies are ruining our environment. KY Lake is one of the finest fisherys in the country. My guess- you think DuPont killed all the fish ? Why don't you stick to things you know something about like making unnessary trips in your car. Walk or ride a bike. Turn off the electricity to your home or use Solar Power ,Stop exhaling so as to reduce CO emissions. Have you done your homework on DDT ? My bet is every home more than 50 years old has more contamination around it than 90% of your tree hugging kind can fathom. I would be willing to bet you applied for a job there and got turned down or someone there made an ass out of you in front of your poor class. You sir are part of the reason we as a society are getting more ignorant. Sure big business Iam about money but if they kill us there will not be anyone around to buy their products. Last I checked the population is growing out of control and your kind have made manufacturing cost go through the roof to the point NAFTA got passed and jobs left this country. Now approximately 53% of the country is getting gov aid and doesn't make enough money to get by. You can't make an omelette without breaking an egg. Don't prey on ignorance of the masses to carry out a personal vendetta. I bet you believe in global warming. Did you know 1 large volcano eruption creates more greenhouse gas than we as man has ever produced ? USGS information is available in real time on their website. Do the math - your an educated man. Seems this earth was a violent place as it was forming and on the average of 10 deg warmer , global. Plants and animals flourished ! I make a paycheck and big business provides that in exchange for work that I do for them. There will always be an upper class and a lower class of people in this country but people like you are one of the main contributers of wiping out the middle class. Spend some time getting your facts straight before going off half cocked and scaring the good people of the surrounding county's of this dreadful plant. I will have you know that I owe everything that I have to DuPont. It isn't much but I got it by leaving that place every day knowing in my heart that I gave them an honest days work in exchange for an honest days pay. You should try it- it is very satisfying. I don't believe in harming our environment but I bet you have been responsible for damage in some way but can justify it . Get off your ass and use your brain !

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  6. I live in New Johnsonville. My husband worked for a company that bagged up the Tio2. They were not required to wear face masks, and it was so hot in the buildings, wearing them was nearly impossible. He would come home, covered in white every night. You couldn't wash the Tio2 out of his clothes. It covered the inside of our car, ate through his shoes, broke his skin out in rashes, etc. He is now coughing up blood. If you say you are an environmentalist, then you should have testified. I'm sure people would rather lose their jobs than their lives. The only way anything is going to change is if an outside source comes in and does something. If a local tries to complain, they'll just be run out of town. Someone needs to do something!

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    1. i lived in new j ville for 24 yrs and both my husband and myself had/ have very rare diseases. he died of a rare form of leukemia which could not be treated and i now have a rare auto immune disorder. i am in mi. now since he has passed away. new j ville is a poisoned city in my opinion.

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  7. I grew up in J'ville. I have always wondered what was coming from that plant. I am in my 30s now and have moved away. I have watched so many of my friends die of cancer that have lived there whole lives there. from young to old and still going on now. SOMEONE needs to say something, and if the ones that are in the position to speak up don't then how are the ones that are not suppose to???

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    1. You are SO right! I hate it when someone writes about a problem, and when they are in the position to do something about it, they chicken out. Ayres writes about how dangerous it is, yet he chose to keep his mouth shut due to the economic disaster it would cause to New Johnsonville. I think people want to know what they're dealing with living here. it's up to them to do what they chose to do, knowing the TRUTH! Dying because they've been lied to should not be an option!!! Shame on you Ayres!

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  8. It is quite humorous that all of the negative comments are coming from anonymous accounts. If you want people to take your complaints seriously, then show everyone you aren't afraid to show who you are.

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  9. Wow just wow...so to the people that are talking about coughing up blood , and how all these people are dying of cancer. Are we sure it's related to the chemical plants? Could it possibly be from something else such as smoking,drinking,heritage, etc. I mean I do not agree with everything that DuPont does but they do give a lot of people the ability to make a really good living... it is funny to me that the ones bitching about them can not imagine what would happen to the surrounding communities should they close... not only would hundreds of people lose their jobs because of it but all the banks,stores, etc would flounder as well because that's where most of the money is coming from. So there would b more than just DuPont (ers ) out of a job

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    1. Do you even realize that Tio2 is considered a carcinogen in other countries, but not here in the U.S.? Did you even read the article? So, jobs and money mean more to you than being alive? lets see how well that works out for you in the end? Wonder if it were your child or family member. Wonder how you'd feel then? The truth needs to come out so the people have the chance to choose if they want to live in an area filled with poison.

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    2. It's absolutely from the chemical plants. We have a white car and every day we can go out to our clean car and there is a sticky black substance all over it that you have to scrub to remove. Don't try to blame it on pollen, because it's all through the year. As far as trying to cover for these plants and saying that coughing up blood could be from a person's bad habits or heritage, then explain to me how TIO2 literally eats my husbands leather shoes apart. If it sticks to the inside of our car and is impossible to wash off, imagine what it does to a person's lungs. You talk about all the banks and stores closing? There are but a few businesses in this town. I don't give a shit about the "good living" these plants give people. My family's health is much more important. As far as signing in under "anonymous", you'd understand why if you lived in this town.

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  10. People dye of cancer every day all over the world. Is it all caused by DuPont?

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    1. You're stupid. Cancer is especially high in New Johnsonville.

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  11. Yes, I put my name down as anonymous, because this is a crooked little town with crooked politicians who I'm sure are being paid off well to ignore all of what DuPont is getting away with. And, I'm also sure that if you are sticking up for DuPont, you are gaining from their being here, as well. Yes, there are many people who would lose jobs if DuPont were to close down or move. I guess if the all mighty dollar is more important to you than your health or the health of your family, I could see why that is so important to you. But, the damage DuPont is causing is not just killing us off, it's a danger to our future generations, as well. What they are doing is killing our environment, as taking us with it. You want to blame the sickness and the deaths on "smoking, drinking and heritage"? Look at the numbers. There is nothing natural about the statistics. Go ahead and stick your head in the sand and ignore what's happening because you care more about the big $$$ See what happens when you're sick and dying before your time. I wonder if you'll be thinking about how much money you made then?

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    1. AMEN! I LIVED THERE FOR 25 YRS. BOTH MY HUSBAND AND MYSELF BECAME ILL WITH VERY RARE DISORDERS. HE HAD A RARE FORM OF LEUKEMIA AND I HAVE A RARE EYE DISEASE AND AUTOIMMUNE MUSCLE DISORDER. IN MY OPINION NEW J VILLE IS A SICK CITY. THERE IS WAY TOO MANY CANCERS AND RARE DISORDERS IN PROPORTION TO THE NUMBER OF PEOPLE WHO LIVE THERE AND IN BENTON CO. I AM IN MI NOW BUT I WAS NOT AFRAID TO ADD MY NAME TO THE PETITION, MANY WERE AND WOULD NOT SIGN BECAUSE THEY NEEDED TO KEEP THEIR JOB AND SUPPORT THEIR FAMILY. WHAT EVER HAPPENED ABOUT THE POTENTIAL LAW SUIT AGAINST THEM?

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    2. I WAS DIAGNOSED WITH A HOLE IN MY EYE AND HAD SURGERY TO SAVE MY VISION BUT AM NOW PARTIALLY BLIND. THE EYE DISEASE IS RELATIVELY RARE. MOST FOLKS HAVE NOT EVEN HEARD OF IT YES, I DO BLAME DUPONT

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  12. What you all need to consider is why so many industry move to Tennessee from places like California and else where the epa is so strick. Sceptre is one what they put in those furnaces and burn into our atmosphere goes up comes back down. Look up what all gases are produced and the by products made at mathason gas some of the most toxic things that nightmares are made of is right there. Its not local government that controls the epa standards in new johnsonville that is made on a state level. But dupont built there plant up front for all to see people need to look around the back roads to. Not taking up for dupont but they are not the only ones people need to be concerned about. I don't work for any of them.

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  13. Hold on here. I don't want to be the bearer of bad news but, we are all part of the problem with "destruction of the world" true some more than others. I just wonder about all these people talking about this evil dupont filling the ground and air with these poisons. If I were to make an guess I would say you all get up turn on your lights, jump in your cars and drive to walmart. Not to mention all the things you waste and or consume are all lending to the problem. I'm neither for or against these "evil" companys but people are very naive if they think all the other countries are "green". Common sense should be used here. What are we to do as a people? There will always be pollution and waste where humans are involved period...

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  14. the cancer rate in Benton county is very high way too high,when people who don't drink or even smoke and who grow most of their food are getting cancer,,well something is causing it.something is being dumped in that river.

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  15. John C. Ayers,

    You spoke vehemently of Dioxin. I agree. We see our Viet Nam warriors struggling with the Agent Orange diseases they now have, one being my cousin. Dioxin is included in a plethora of possibilities for Parkinson's disease (another cousin living in Greenback, TN). Your thoughts please.

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  16. I'm 63 years old. In the 1950's my dad worked as a chemical engineer at the plant. He died of lung cancer in 2006. He smoked cigarettes for about 40 years. I don't have a point. Just reminiscing.

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