From: Eve Byron, Independent Record, Helena, Mont.
Published October 21, 2004 12:00 AM

East Helena, Mont., Plant Misses Deadline for Getting Rid of Sodium Metal

Oct. 21—Although the state's goal of having Asarco remove a tanker of highly volatile sodium metal from its idled East Helena plant by the end of September has come and gone, progress is being made, officials with the Department of Environmental Quality said this week.


DEQ employees met on Tuesday with members of the Environmental Protection Agency's emergency response team, Asarco officials and representatives of a private environmental laboratory to discuss possible treatment scenarios and removal strategies, according to Ed Thamke, DEQ waste and underground tank management bureau chief.


"We went through engineering and treatment scenarios and what this private company (Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory) has done in the past," Thamke said. "The higher the danger of the material, it makes sense that the more complicated the removal or treatment strategy will be.


"We didn't meet our original timeline, but that doesn't mean we're not doing anything about it."


While DEQ officials initially said they wanted Asarco to get rid of the tanker by the end of September, Asarco wanted at least nine months to consider all options. The state still wants the company to move forward this fall, but as they're learning more about the intricacies of moving sodium metal they're willing to take a bit more time, Thamke said.


"Asarco has approached three different consultants with regard to different strategies on the sodium metal," he said. "What we explained to Jon (Nickel, Asarco's environmental engineer) is that our hope is that by the end of October, they'll make a decision on which contractor they will be doing business with. Then, during the month of November, we anticipate they submit a work plan so we can see what they intend to do.


"Our job is to see whether there is any regulatory considerations that need to take place during development of those work plans. We want to work with Asarco and their contractor on treatment or removal."


The container of sodium metal at Asarco was discovered during a routine inspection of the plant this summer. The double-walled railroad tanker car, which has had its wheels removed, has been at Asarco for at least 11 years.


Asarco used the sodium in its dross plant from August 1988 through October 1991, to enhance the recovery of antimony and silver. Last week, Nickel said the tanker contains about 3,000 pounds of sodium metal - basically, the residue they weren't able to suction out of the tanker about a decade ago.


Sodium metal is considered a flammable solid that can react vigorously with water, steam and acids to release flammable or explosive hydrogen. It may ignite spontaneously in moist air or oxygen and burn violently, accompanied by explosions that can cause spattering of molten material.


A "nitrogen blanket" covers the sodium metal inside the tanker to keep it from air or moisture, which DuPont — the company that sold the chemical to Asarco — says complies with recommended guidelines. Thamke added that the professionals who have visited the site all agree that it appears to be safely stored for the short-term.


"But we still have a goal of working toward the viable removal of that material as soon as possible," Thamke said.


The highly volatile chemical could be neutralized in its container, or it may have to be pumped into another vessel to be moved. Thamke said transporting the sodium metal in its current container isn't a viable option.


Taking either enforcement or legal action to try to force Asarco to move faster always is a possibility, but not the route the DEQ wants to follow at this time, Thamke added.


"I think we can get this resolved more quickly and less expensively if we get Asarco and the contractor on board, rather than seek a legal remedy or enforcement action," Thamke said.


© 2004, Independent Record, Helena, Mont. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.


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