Every September, it pours. Water rains down on a tiny spit of land at the junction of the Weymouth Fore and Town rivers. Hundreds of thousands of gallons (liters) of water cascade down in a matter of minutes, creating instant rivers and ankle-deep puddles.
Then, as quickly as it started, it stops.
This is not a bizarre weather phenomenon, but rather the annual test of the deluge fire protection system at Twin Rivers Technologies, a unique chemical plant in Quincy, Massachusetts, USA, about 15 miles (24 kilometers) south of Boston, Massachusetts.
The annual test, the system itself and the sheer volume of water it can produce are a testament to Twin Rivers' commitment, not only to fire safety, but also to its customers. Twin Rivers is one of the first links in the supply chain for some of the largest consumer product manufacturers in the world. As one of only a handful of facilities in the United States that produces fatty acids and glycerin, Twin Rivers has invested millions of dollars in fire protection systems and power generation upgrades designed to ensure it can deliver on its promises.
"Some of our customers rely solely on us to provide the raw material for their products," explains Todd Lyman, director of operations. "Our business is built on the trust they have in us to deliver those raw materials. The risk of not being able to meet those expectations is always a concern, and we have been proactive in mitigating the risks associated with our business."
Running new water mains from the city streets, replacing the entire sprinkler system in the main production facility and adding its own steam and electrical capacity are just some of the improvements Twin Rivers has made over the last 10 years. It's made the facility one of the best-protected chemical plants anywhere, and even earned the company a highly protected risk (HPR) award from FM Global along the way.
"HPR status is a far reach for a chemical plant," says FM Global Account Manager Kimberly Gateman. "It's hard to achieve, so it's impressive that they've gotten there and have been able to maintain their HPR status."
HPR status is unusual because of the inherent dangers of chemical processing. Through distillation, fractionation and post-hydrogenation, Twin Rivers breaks down the molecular structure of animal fats and vegetable oils like palm, soy and coconut oil. The resulting chemical compounds form the building blocks for hundreds of "staple-of-life" items, including personal care products and cleaning solutions. They can also be found in automotive products, specialty plastics, pet foods and many other products across a wide range of industries.
Twin Rivers' HPR status only adds to the uniqueness of the facility. A former soap factory, some of the infrastructure dates back to the early 1900s. The facility is on a small inlet with direct access to the ocean and a deep-water port, allowing raw materials to be shipped in from all over the world.
The company even has its own railroad line, which connects to the northeast rail corridor of the United States. Most of Twin Rivers' finished products are shipped by rail all over the country. It's one of the largest producers of fatty acids and glycerin in the U.S., processing 300 to 350 million pounds (136 to 158 million kilograms) of raw material a year.
"I'm not sure you could even build this facility today," Twin Rivers Facility Manager Frank Greene says. "It would be cost prohibitive."
The finite number of fatty acids and glycerin producers in the U.S., and Twin Rivers' status as a sole provider to many of its customers, have driven many of the investments in fire safety and operational efficiency.
"We’ve learned over the years that we'd rather spend our time optimizing and protecting our business than reacting to incidents and doing damage control," explains Scott Chatlin, Twin Rivers' president and chief executive officer.
In 2009, Twin Rivers began working with FM Global engineers to optimize the facility's fire protection system. That work led to a multimillion-dollar, five-year program.
First, Twin Rivers worked with the city of Quincy to bring a new water main to the property to provide adequate water flow for the new system. The company added a new fire pump and replaced the entire sprinkler protection system in the main production facility.
"One of the biggest challenges was that we had to maintain the old fire protection system while we were installing the new one," Greene explains. "We couldn't run the plant without fire protection while the upgrades were being made, so we had to run parallel systems, which added to the cost and the complexity. It was quite a team effort with the FM Global engineers to get this done."
HPR: not just equipment
To reach HPR status, Twin Rivers also improved its emergency response and flood emergency response plans. It implemented new hot work permitting procedures and put other procedures in place to reduce the risk of loss and injury.
"It's not just the equipment and the engineering," Greene says. "It's the things you do every day behind the scenes that keep your facility and your people safe."
As far as chemical plants go, the processes performed at Twin Rivers are not nearly as dangerous as those performed at other types of chemical plants, like oil refineries. But the hazards are very real. The raw materials are solid at room temperature (like vegetable shortening) and need to be heated to be processed. High-pressure steam is used throughout the system to keep the material flowing. Hydrogen is also added to some of the chemical processes, so highly explosive liquid hydrogen is stored on-site.
Twin Rivers even added a high-pressure natural gas turbine in 2015 to generate its own heat and electricity. This system helps protect the facility by ensuring a reliable power supply, but they also pose their own risks.
"We use compressed natural gas, and those enclosures have their own fire protection systems based on FM Global's recommendations," explains Karen Brushett, Twin Rivers' utilities manager. "There are a lot of safety features, and we do a lot of training."
Last line of defense
Given its importance to its clients, Twin Rivers has invested heavily throughout the plant. But the largest and most impressive risk management investment has been in the deluge system. While common in the chemical industry, Twin Rivers has maximized the protection it provides. The system interlocks with the control systems, allowing a fire to be sealed off from the rest of the plant, and the upgraded fire main and fire pump allow for an astonishing amount of water to be released.
"The system can only be tested during the plant's annual shutdown because of the amount of water it draws," Greene adds. "It really is quite amazing."