Checking out Cyanide

My first full-time job took me to St Louis. I worked for a large chemical company that employed some 10,000 people at its St Louis headquarters. After only a couple of months of getting my engineering feet wet, I received my first travel assignment: check out of a new addition to a chemical plant. It required travel to Houston, and from there, travel south to Alvin, Texas, a drive of about forty-five minutes. The plant is in Chocolate Bayou, a defined area outside of Alvin. It’s a place loaded with chemical plants. The Chocolate Bayou plant, named after Chocolate Bayou, a bayou that looks like a river of chocolate due to heavy silt load heading out to Chocolate Bay.

Flying out on Monday morning with three or so co-workers, we flew back home to St. Louis on Friday night for about three months. Days were spent crawling around a chemical plant, doing a checkout of the equipment before it went into service. This involved entering large pressure vessels through twenty-four inch openings. Some of the vessels were lined with rubber or glass and contained other equipment inside of them, things like agitators, huge mixers hanging from the center of the tank, and baffles, which are plates that run alongside and attached to the interior of the tank in a number of places around the circumference.

OSHA was not in full force as it is today, neither were environmental laws as stringent. As a twenty-two year old, I didn’t know better. With no cares, no responsibilities, no accounting to anyone other than myself, and certainly no thoughts that I could die, I crawled into these tanks unaware of the potential dangers. I entered the vessels without the benefit of a ‘sniffer’ test to ensure there was good breathing air. Since they were brand new and chemicals were yet to be introduced into the vessels, the possibility of poor air never crossed my radar. I trusted that the agitator power was locked out as I lowered myself down into the tank.

Why do engineers have to make these excursions? In addition to making sure the interior was built to the drawing, a final inspection of connections and overall integrity is performed to minimize the chance of requiring re-entry after chemicals have been introduced. It could have also been that my loving co-workers had a bet on whether I’d get in there or not, but I never heard any snickering so I’m thinking it was a legitimate job and certainly one to give a junior engineer. You know, now that I think about it, none of the senior guys ever did go in there.

The new addition just happened to be adjacent to an operating plant that produced cyanide as a by-product. It smells like almonds. That’s how you were supposed to know if there was a leak prior to the alarms sounding. And when you smelled the almond aroma and Mr. Peanut is nowhere to be found, you were to simply run. Run like there is no tomorrow. Run like Forrest Gump ran.


Borrowed from


For this nut-deprived engineer that was somewhat disconcerting. Sometime in my childhood, a doctor and my mother and probably my father, determined I was allergic to nuts and chocolate. I grew out of it eventually, although I’m still not convinced it was ever a problem. Still, I didn’t venture into the land of nuts and chocolate until well into adulthood. The scent of an almond simply wasn’t in my toolbox of experiences. Fortunately there were electronic sniffers and trained human sniffers. I relaxed.

On a cold afternoon, on the fourth floor of the structure, I spied a large pipe in the adjacent plant area, the cyanide zone, with a large chunk of ice across the middle of a pipe run. Turns out it was a cyanide Popsicle. When a leak is detected and before it can be repaired, a flood of water is run over the pipe to dilute the cyanide and prevent it from killing half the plant workers. Of course in cooler months, the water froze on the pipe and worked to contain the leak. Still disconcerting though when viewed from about fifty feet away.

One warmer day the cyanide siren went off while I was checking out the fourth floor. I tried to smell for nuts. What was I thinking? Smelling cyanide didn’t take long to kill you. In fact, should you witness a co-worker passed out from the scent, you were to run for help and run to get out of the area. Only trained rescue personnel with appropriate breathing air packs were allowed to help. Of course by the time they are suited up and arrived, the victim has most likely expired. I took a clue from the other workers and raced to the bottom with the pipe fitters, welders, and electricians. We all made it; crisis averted. Heart pumped on overload.

Soon that job was over and I returned to St Louis smarter, ten pounds heavier (eating on expenses paid is awful for the waistline), and safe. I now know what almonds taste and smell like, although I’ve never experienced cyanide since that time. If I knew almonds smelled much like Amaretto, I would have known!


About stemzandroses

I'm an engineer and writer with a built-in need to share my nearly 40 years of experience working in a male-dominated field with the rest of the world.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s