A few days ago, misinformation about an alleged accident at Achema, and rumours of a “gas pipe bursting”, harmful chemicals spreading, and even victims, were leaked on social networks and later in the media and in the statements by the politicians. Later it appeared that no air pollution was recorded, the company was operating in its normal mode, and the shut-down of one of the units was carried out in the established technological mode.
We asked Ramūnas Miliauskas, the CEO of Achema, what actually happened at Achema and what caused it.
So what happened at Achema last week?
Apparently it was “a storm in a glass of water”: one of the 9 nitric acid assemblies, that was normally shut down in accordance with all the technological processes, caused some confusion when a contractor of the company filmed the post-suspension vapour, the emitted orange smoke, the so-called “fox tail” that occurs in such cases, and later uploaded it on social networks.
It lasted around 1-1.5 minutes and after 3 minutes the orange smoke – it is the colour of nitric oxide – cleared away. There was no accident at the company. It was a technological process, where one assembly was shut down, while the production and loading continued in a normal mode.
The company is equipped with modern and effective protective measures for the production process that automatically stop the equipment to prevent an accident and damage in the unit. Such shut-downs are inevitable, therefore, the company has integrated pollution prevention and control (IPPC) permits, that specify the number of annual shut-downs allowed. For example, one nitric acid assembly can be stopped and launched 6 times a year, and taking into account all 9 assemblies at the company, it would make 54 times a year….
However, due to the technology implemented in the company, the proper operation of the equipment and the experience and qualifications of the employees, such occurrences are rather rare, the most recent was more than three years ago, in 2016. Also, in such cases, the reports are made, including the number of shut-downs and the amount of substances discharged at acceptable levels into the environment.
So why didn’t the Emergency Notification System work – at least that is the impression you make when you hear the politicians speak – was there too little or no information?
The point is that there was no accident. That is why the appropriate mechanisms approved and established in the event of an accident did not work. Industrial accidents are regulated by the EU Directive on the Control of Hazardous Accidents involving Dangerous Chemicals (2012), the Civil Protection Law of the Republic of Lithuania and the Resolution on the Prevention, Elimination and Investigation of Industrial Accidents by the Government of the Republic of Lithuania, as well as Achema’s internal accident management legislation and plans based on them.
As we saw the misinformation on social networks, we distributed a press release to the media immediately and informed the authorities. However, not all of them were contacted immediately (e.g. Jonava Municipality). However, even after the distribution of the press release about the shut-down of the production unit and the small amount of nitric oxide emitted within 1-1.5 minutes during its shut-down, we received so much rumour from various institutions that we had to spend the whole day denying it. I could barely walk away from the phone, although there were other direct responsibilities other than responding to the fake news and the questions that followed. As usual, the media seeks sensations, while politicians manipulate the information to improve their ratings.
It is very surprising that some public authorities, rather than informing the public in a timely and objective manner, unnecessarily misled them and harmed the company’s reputation. In addition, the next day they tried to brush off the responsibility for informing the population onto the company, although it is the responsibility of the authorities to determine the level of threat on the basis of the data and information received and to properly inform the population and educational institutions.
In similar cases, which may happen several times a year due to technological aspects of the company, we have never received a similar reaction to that of last week when the responsible authorities did not inform the population objectively but rather disseminated disinformation and intimidated people, although we had already discussed the event with the specialists of the environmental and public health centre and a press release was disseminated.
What should be done in similar cases in the future?
I find it hard to understand, why the unit shut down for technological reasons caused such a wave of rumours this time. However, it is clear that the public is extremely sensitive to the environment and its problems at the moment, and politicians are trying to improve their ratings by showing off and demonstrating a fake concern for people.
We were accused of trying to conceal the event or failing to inform – I can honestly say it did not happen, but there is another problem – nobody trusted us after such statements by the politicians, misinformation and rumours. They even did not believe the fact that the pollution monitoring stations, located in different parts of Jonava district and the city, transmitting the data in the current on-line mode, showed no pollution.
This time, after the automatic shut-down of the unit, the company’s laboratory staff immediately checked for emissions both inside the facility and outside the company’s sanitary protection zone. It was found that the nitric oxide rate was not exceeded in the immediate vicinity of the unit and that the amount of nitric oxide was 3 times lower than the permitted limit outside the sanitary zone. Also, the city’s automatic sanitary station showed that nitric oxide levels were 7 times below the legal limit.
The absence of air pollution was also confirmed by the air monitoring stations in Jonava city, additional research was conducted by the NVSC (National Centre for Public Health) and its results were announced on Friday.
As the unit stopped in accordance with all the requirements, we informed the company’s staff, the Public Health Centre, and the environmental authorities. We prepared and disseminated a press release. Although not required, we informed the administration of the city. On arrival, the environmental inspector confirmed that there was no contamination, nor were the norms exceeded.
However, the production of Achema is not “green”. How do you plan to reduce polluting production in the future? What measures are being taken?
In fact, in recent years, Achema has been focusing on energy saving, retrofitting and reducing pollution, despite the additional taxes and unfavourable business conditions for our plant – we have invested over 30 million euros annually over the last few years.
Nowadays, “green industry” is an increasingly popular topic. Technologies to reduce emissions are already under development, but this requires appropriate measures, production restructuring and investment.
We are paying for emission allowances; this year, for example, we will pay around 25 million euros. Back in September, we proposed to the Ministry of the Environment, together with the Confederation of Industrialists, the measures to restructure the industry and encourage the investment to reduce environmental pollution – it is being done in Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway and other countries. Unfortunately, however, we have not yet received any response to our proposal. The state used to receive around 80 million euros annually from the emission allowances alone, however, this year, as the price of the emission allowances increased, the total budget of the fund has increased about 4 times, but, as far as I know, nothing is planned in this field.
The latest proposals by the Ministry of Environment to the Republic of Lithuania on the environmental protection package, providing only for the strengthening of business liability and the increase of fines, will not solve the problem. In my opinion, such solutions are short-term, disruptive to national industry, complicating the competitive environment, and opportunities for national businesses to compete with their counterparts abroad, where such requirements and restrictions do not exist.
It has to be understood that industrial restructuring is not a matter of putting fines on businesses, it must be a long-term plan that combines appropriate resources: state-of-the-art technology, people capable of working with them, and appropriate investment.
EU leaders are already talking about such a transformation plan by 2050. But what if Lithuania wakes up only right before the deadline and, again, will not be prepared. Unfortunately, our country still lacks such maturity and rational thinking. However, I still believe that common sense will prevail, even though, as the saying goes, “Hope is the mother of fools,” – we’ll see.