Slag tales – by Jeff Carlson POSTED: 05/25/18, 3:00 AM PDT
The stories told about blast furnace slag by promoters of a proposed south Vallejo waterfront slag cement plant serve to illustrate both the quality of the information presented to the public, and the folly in thinking the environmental review process provides adequate protection. The applicants have attempted to create the false impression that there are two very different kinds of blast furnace slag — iron and steel — and that Orcem’s iron slag is the “safe” kind.
There has never been any real confusion surrounding these fake facts, other than what the applicants have tried to stir up. The slag is named according to the furnace in which it’s created, and you have to refine iron ore in a blast furnace in order to make steel. Steel furnace slag would be called BOF or EAF slag, and is little different from Orcem’s blast furnace slag in composition — except that it’s likely cleaner, since the steel furnaces use refined iron from a blast furnace along with 10-20 percent steel scrap. The hazardous impurities in the waste slag come primarily from the feedstock ore, regardless of the type of furnace, and iron blast furnace slag is the result of directly processing those ores.
More than two years ago the applicants assured our school board that: “Absolutely none of Orcem’s materials or products are toxic. None. Each metal’s slag has a unique chemistry. Orcem uses blast furnace slag from the production of iron, which is not toxic.” Meanwhile, the Environmental Impact Report for the project revealed that more than 16 tons of fugitive dust in the dangerously small particle size of 10 microns or less would be released into south Vallejo’s air each year as the slag material is moved around and stored in massive open piles. So how well do those corporate claims hold up under scrutiny — that tons of slag dust would not harm our school kids a quarter mile downwind? Not even a little bit.
Here’s a sampling of quotes taken from the material safety data sheets of domestic producers of blast furnace slag — yes, that’s the slag from iron production: “Individuals with chronic respiratory disorders (i.e., asthma, chronic bronchitis,emphysema, etc.) may be adversely affected by any airborne particulate matter exposure. Health Hazard 1 — Denotes possible chronic hazard if airborne dusts or fumes are generated. Individuals with lung disease (e.g. bronchitis, emphysema, COPD, pulmonary disease) or sensitivity to hexavalent chromium can be aggravated by exposure. Danger. May cause cancer. Avoid breathing dust.”
And so on. Oh, and don’t forget the sensitive riparian environment at the mouth of the Napa River: “Very Toxic to aquatic life with long lasting effects.”
The pattern of intentional misinformation surrounding this project stretches back to the early stages of the application process. In January of 2014 the regional air quality board asked for more information with regard to the application for a permit. One of the requested items: “Provide MSDS of the raw materials including the composition with any toxic contents.” The corporate office in Ireland responded with a single Material Safety Data Sheet for blast furnace slag from the marketing division that sells slag for Nippon Steel in Japan — one which lacks nearly all of the toxicology warnings of safety sheets from our domestic slag producers.
So what accounts for the stark differences in hazard assessment? While the global MSDS formats have been brought into closer agreement, the U.S. standards require much better and more complete content information in order to protect workers and the public. But even here the hazard information in any one safety sheet is almost certain to be fragmentary.
The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board looked at 140 safety data sheets for substances that produce combustible dusts, and found none that contained all the information the board said was needed to work with the material safely. A second study examined 62 safety data sheets for common flammable liquids and again found every single data sheet to be inadequate in hazard assessment. What’s at stake here is the health and quality of life for some of our most vulnerable residents — our children, the sick, and the elderly. This is no time to play fast and loose with the truth by shopping around for the least informative version of hazard data available worldwide.
This proposal emerged in a haze of questionable transactions surrounding the foreclosure sale of the property, and the revival and transfer of a lapsed lease with the City for public trust land. It was hyped as a port project and major source of economic stimulus — when in reality port use at the site is not permissible under the Bay Plan, and the cargo category it claimed it would service disappeared from regional statistics as something even worthy of tracking. The applicants have informed the Bay Commission staff that the cement plant would account for much less than half of the project capacity, and that more industrial tenants would be needed down the road. There has been no environmental review of the activities of these future industrial tenants or even any indication given to the public that more heavy industry would follow with approval of this project. If this was really such a wonderful opportunity for Vallejo, there would be no need to hide critically important information and repeatedly mislead the public and our elected officials.
— Jeff Carlson/Vallejo