On January 14, a 20-ton tank filled with ethylene oxide exploded and caused a large fire at the Chemical Industries of Ethylene Oxide (IQOXE) factory in the Industrial Park of La Canonja, Tarragona, Spain. The incident left two employees dead, six injured, with two seriously burned.
Access to several facilities in the park were restricted as firefighters rushed to the scene and road and rail traffic were interrupted in adjacent areas. The IQOXE restarted operations on January 15 but production remained halted as workers concentrated on cleaning the affected area of the factory. The incident has sparked a strong reaction against the petrochemical industry, with thousands of chemical workers planning an industry wide strike and a potential regulatory backlash ensuing.
Use of ethylene oxide
The IQOXE factory is dedicated to the production of ethylene oxide, glycols, and derivatives of ethylene oxide. It is the only producer of ethylene oxide in Spain, with an installed capacity of 140,000 tons per year. Ethylene oxide is primarily used as an intermediate in the production of several industrial chemicals, the most notable of which is ethylene glycol. It is also used as a fumigant in certain agricultural products and to sterilize medical equipment and supplies. Fifty percent of the factory’s production is dedicated to the manufacturing of glycol, one of the main raw materials for the production of PET polymers.
The industrial park in La Canonja and the Tarragona region is vital for the production and supply of chemicals to the country. The region is responsible for 25 percent of Spain’s chemical production, 50 percent of Catalonia’s production, and 0.7 percent of worldwide chemical production. The industrial park generates 30 percent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of the Camp de Tarragona – an area that includes towns such as Reus, La Canonja, Constantí, Tarragona, Cambrils, Salou or Vilaseca, among others. The industrial park also employs more than 40,000 people and provides critical infrastructure to the Port of Tarragona.
Strike action may impact production
On January 15, following the incident, a group of 110 workers from the factory concentrated in front of the facility to protest against the fatal explosion, calling for stricter safety standards. An additional 3,000 people gathered in the Plaza de la Font in Tarragona on the same day. On January 28, approximately 800 people marched in La Canonja advocating for better health & safety measures in factory operations.
The Unión General de Trabajadores (UGT) and Workers’ Commissions (CCOO) unions have organized a strike consisting of chemical workers on February 19 in Tarragona also to demand better safety conditions at chemical plants. The 24-hour strike calls for more than 11,000 workers to participate and will start at 6:00am (local time). Given the magnitude of the demonstration, the production of ethylene oxide and glycol may be at risk during the strike.
The IQOXE explosion is one of several incidents that have shaken the petrochemical industry in Tarragona in recent months. In 2019, there were four major industrial accidents, one in May, two in June, and another in July. The first occurred at the Carburos Metálicos factory where a worker died and another seriously injured by the leakage of an ammonia tank. Unions and environmental associations have requested that the security protocols, both internal and public, be reviewed to prevent them from happening again and will likely participate in the February 19 strike. The CCOO and UGT unions said that the strike will encompass the entire petrochemical sector of Tarragona.
New regulatory measures to come
A government investigation is ongoing to determine the appropriate action and a criminal case is pending against the Tarragona City Council as several residents have deemed the Council responsible for low safety standards. The City Council has also agreed to implement a system of remote monitoring of all chemical industries in order to react more diligently when hazardous incidents occur and develop independent studies of air quality. It is also considering more restrictive legislation on environmental control and safety measures in the chemical industry sector. Parliament is currently in the process of creating a commission to address improvements in industrial safety to prevent future disasters.
Significant disruption at petrochemical factories in the La Canonja industrial park should be expected during the upcoming strike. Tighter regulatory controls may also have a long-term impact on chemical production in the region. For customers with suppliers located in the area, it is recommended to ensure that an appropriate plan is in place to protect or relocate assets and operations if a severe industrial accident occurs again and to have a business continuity plan ready if the strike and regulatory actions were to significantly impact production in the area.