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Hazardous chlorine leak in North Vancouver

Canexus Chemical plant was the scene of a chlorine leak this morning.  Canexus manufactures chlorine and ships it primarily to the U.S. Details of how much chlorine gas was released in the accident are not clear yet. Chlorine is one of the most deadly chemicals.

Photo by Megan Stewart of Canexus chemical plant from VO archives

A leak early this morning at Canexus Chemical Plant in North Vancouver left  four workers injured.  The workers have been hospitalized; one of the injured is reported to be in serious condition.  Throughout the day, the Vancouver Observer attempted unsuccessfully to contact the plant's officials, the North Vancouver Fire Department, and other officials who might comment on  the chlorine leak.  VO received an anonymous report from someone who said they lived in the vicinity of the plant and that there were no warning blasts given from the plant's warning system, when the leak occurred.  The anonymous caller reported having a sore throat and respiratory difficulties, but these claims could not be confirmed. 

The plant has long been a concern to North Vancouver residents. Chlorine catastrophes have resulted in the evacuation of large populations in the United States, China and Latin America, as exposure to the gas can be lethal. 

The Maplewood Advisory Committee, which includes regional planners, local business owners, conservation groups and area residents, criticized the Vancouver Port Authority in 2007 for extending their lease with Canexus until 2032. The extension hinges on the upgrades now underway and permits Canexus to manufacture enough chlorine to fill one additional rail car each day, bringing the average to six, Megan Stewart reported in a 2009 article for VO.

“The idea of having a chlorine plant in the middle of a dense residential community is ridiculous enough, and is further enhanced by the fact that the plant is in a high risk earthquake zone,” wrote co-chairs Tom Young and John Walkley to Stewart at the time.

“This is of particular concern to the railcar shipment of chlorine. The probability of a terrorist action against a railcar is also far greater than one against the plant itself. The US Transport Security Administration says that unguarded railcars filled with toxic chemicals such as chlorine are the single biggest terrorist threat related to the nation’s railroads.”

Canexus ranks among North America’s largest chlor-alkali producers and is one of the country's 500 largest companies. It manufactures chlorine and other products essential to the pulp and paper industry as well as the household cleaners and plastics we use every day.

Previously part of the chemical division of Alberta oil giant, Nexen, Canexus produces an average annual 154,000 tonnes of chlorine. Following the upgrades and plant expansion, the North Shore facility could pump out nearly 200,000 tonnes of chlorine each year, equivalent to an estimated 2,400 rail cars.

Information from the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory shows that the worst-case release from a 90-ton railcar could injure or kill 100,000 people. Classified as a TIH, or toxic by inhalation, chlorine gas is lethal at high concentrations and hazardous even as it disperses. The 90-ton rail cars that leave Canexus carry 82 metric tonnes (82,000 kilograms) of pressurized liquid chlorine, which evaporates into the highly hazardous gas.

Downtown Vancouver is less than 15 kilometers from Canexus, which is located on the waterfront to the east of the Second Narrows Crossing in North Vancouver. Rail lines leaving the facility travel across the Burrard Inlet and through residential neighbourhoods. The tracks pass through Vancouver near Gastown at the north end of Main Street and through East Vancouver, Burnaby and New Westminster. Rail lines continue to Surrey, past a rail yard between the Pattullo and Port Mann bridges and finally travel through White Rock before entering the U.S. at the Peace Arch border crossing.

Arthur Dungan, the president of the Virginia-based Chlorine Institute, an industry advocate and lobby group that includes Canexus as a member, said the worst-case scenarios from his institution err on the side of caution. The Institute provides emergency responders with resources in the event of a catastrophic accident involving chlorine. Pamphlet 74 shows how chlorine gas from a ruptured, 90-ton railcar would travel downwind as far as 64 km in a few minutes, with low-lying gas concentrating in lethal amounts closest to the leak.

Twenty-four km downwind, The Institute's Pamphlet 74 predicts a chlorine gas concentration of 20 parts per million, a strength described as “the maximum airborne concentration” people can tolerate for up to one hour “without experiencing or developing life-threatening health effects.”

The plant is 52 years old.


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