Jan. 22, 1999 Chemical industry efforts to keep the so-called Y2K computer problem from shutting down safety controls may be further behind than previously thought -- particularly at smaller chemical companies around the nation -- according to a report in this week's issue of Chemical & Engineering News, newsmagazine of the world's largest scientific society, the American Chemical Society.
The report quotes Gerald V. Poje, board member of the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSHIB), who notes that "one to three percent of some 50 billion embedded chips worldwide will be subject to Y2K problems and some 25 million mission critical systems may have problems." At chemical plants, such chips automate devices, (within chemical plants,) including the control pumps and valves that prevent spills and other hazardous accidents from occurring.
Y2K consultants report that the small and medium sized chemical companies are at greatest risk, depending on their ability to spend enough time and resources to address the problem. Angela E. Summers, director of Premier Consulting and Engineering in LaMarque, Texas, says that a system using embedded chips could "fail dangerously." A safety system might not respond adequately, or it could "fail safely," she says, resulting in a costly shutdown and startup, but without incident.
Experts have found that "even chemical companies that have actively addressed the Y2K problem may have underestimated its depth," according to the article in C&EN. Consultants hired by Occidental Chemical found "10 times more systems with potential Y2K problems than the company's own engineers had found."
At a recent CSHIB meeting in Washington, D.C., more than 50 experts from around the U.S. discussed possible solutions for the chemical industry's Y2K problem. One option that was discussed was to temporarily shut down computer systems at midnight on December 31st, 1999, and then restart them later, hoping systems would come back online without incident. Views of the CSHIB will be included in a report to a special Senate Y2K Committee later this month.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been given "no special authority to encourage companies to make Y2K investigations," according to Don Flattery, the EPA's Y2K project team coordinator. The agency has created a "tool kit" which provides advice to chemical companies and examples of other companies' approaches to the problem. "The CSHIB panel's consensus was that the country's focus should be on helping the smaller companies," but the help they get is more likely to come from the chemical industry rather than the U.S. government, according to the C&EN article.
A nonprofit organization with a membership of nearly 159,000 chemists and chemical engineers, the American Chemical Society publishes scientific journals and databases, convenes major research conferences, and provides educational, science policy and career programs in chemistry. Its main offices are in Washington, D.C., and Columbus, Ohio.
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