Reporting Sulfuric Acid

Question: Steve, I am the H&S coordinator of a manufacturing facility and I also have some environmental responsibilities.
#pollutioncontrol #sustainability


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Steve, I am the H&S coordinator of a manufacturing facility and I also have some environmental responsibilities. Recently, during our annual fire department inspection, they questioned whether or not we need to be reporting the sulfuric acid in our fork lift trucks. I responded that they are exempted articles, and, therefore, are not required to be reported.

They responded that they would look into it and get back to me, but I wanted to get another opinion. What is your opinion? Thanks for the advice. B. K.


From our experience, a surprising number of facilities miss reporting sulfuric acid and/or lead in lead-acid batteries, particularly the batteries in electric lift trucks. The Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act of 1986 (SARA), also known as the "Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act" (EPCRA), requires reporting if quantities of specific chemicals present in a facility at any one time exceed reporting threshold amounts. The annual SARA chemical inventory report provides valuable information for state emergency response, local emergency planning committee and local fire department to use in case of emergency response or fire.

EPCRA Section 311 provides that "the owner or operator of any facility which is required to have available a material safety data sheet for a hazardous chemical under the Occupational Health and Safety Act of 1970 (OSHA)...shall submit a material safety data sheet for each such chemical..." The term "hazardous chemical" has the meaning given by OSHA regulations at 29CFR1910.1200(c), with the exception of those substances specifically exempted in EPCRA Section 311(e). Under the OSHA Hazard Communication regulations (29CFR1910.1200(b)(6)(v)), an exemption is provided for an "article" under 29CFR1910.1200(c): "...a manufactured item...(iii) which under normal conditions of use does not release more than very small quantities...of a hazardous chemical…and does not pose a physical hazard or health risk to employees."

In a directive published by OSHA (OSHA Instruction CPL,2-2.38D, March, 1998), the agency set forth the definition of an "article" and clearly identifies lead acid batteries as an example of products that would NOT be considered "article" exempted; the directive states "...lead-acid batteries, which have the potential to leak, spill or break during normal conditions of use, including foreseeable emergencies. In addition, lead-acid batteries have the potential to emit hydrogen, which may result in a fire or explosion upon ignition." Hence, in an interpretation letter dated October 22, 1998, USEPA stated that "all forms of lead-acid batteries are not considered articles" and, therefore, they are not exempt from reporting if the applicable reporting threshold amounts are exceeded. This includes other types of lead-acid batteries, such as those used in electrical backup systems and emergency lighting.

Because sulfuric acid is classified by USEPA as an "extremely hazardous substance" (EHS), it has a low reporting threshold of only 500 lbs. Since lead is an OSHA hazardous chemical, it has a reporting threshold of 10,000 lbs.

While the lift truck battery’s material safety data sheet (MSDS) is a starting point, we have found them to lack the needed information to estimate the amount of sulfuric acid and lead. Your next step is to contact your lift truck distributor or the battery manufacturer; from our experience, sometimes they have the specific information to make a good estimate, and sometimes they do not since they give concentration information in wide ranges. If you are able to obtain the volume of battery electrolyte (sulfuric acid solution), density of the electrolyte (lbs/gallon), and the percent (%) concentration of sulfuric acid in the electrolyte, you can estimate the amount of sulfuric in the battery as follows:

Sulfuric acid (lbs) = gallons of electrolyte x density of electrolyte x % sulfuric acid.

However, if you are unable to obtain the necessary data, we typically estimate the amount of sulfuric acid at 18% of the battery’s weight and the amount of lead at 70% of the battery’s weight. These values are the maximum to be expected since USEPA guidance for EPCRA reporting states that if the concentration of a regulated chemical is known only in terms of a range, you use the highest concentration when estimating amount of chemical on site.

A typical electric lift truck battery can easily weigh 2,400 lbs, therefore, it could contain as much as 432 lbs of sulfuric acid (2,400 × 0.18) and as much as 1,690 lbs of lead (2,400 × 0.70). In this example, sulfuric acid must be reported if you have two or more such batteries and lead must be reported if you have six or more such batteries.

Since sulfuric acid is an "extremely hazardous substance," EPCRA Section 302 requires you to notify your state emergency response commission and your local emergency planning committee within 60 days that you have sulfuric acid on site over the threshold quantity (TQ) and your facility’s emergency contact person(s). USEPA and most states do not have a specific form for this notification; you can either use a letter or state’s annual chemical inventory report form (aka Tier I or Tier II report). Also, if you report that your facility has more than the 1,000 lbs Threshold Planning Quantity (TPQ) of sulfuric acid, your local emergency planning committee and state emergency response commission will likely require you to comply with additional emergency response and planning requirements.

EPCRA Section 311 requires facilities to submit MSDS(s) or a list of chemicals to the state emergency response commission, local emergency planning committee and the local fire department within three months of the TQ or 10,000 lb OSHA hazardous chemical threshold being exceeded. From our experience, almost all states encourage you to use their annual chemical inventory report form to comply with Section 311 reporting in lieu of submitting MSDS(s).

EPCRA Section 312 requires facilities to report their chemical inventory of the past year by March 1st of each year. Also, most states have reporting fees for their Section 312 annual reports. Some states require you to figure and pay the fee at time of Section 312 report submittal while others bill you based upon your submitted report.

I know this is not the answer you desired. We recommend that now you begin evaluating whether or not you need to report and not wait for the fire department’s response.

P.S. Since OSHA does not consider lead-acid batteries article exempt, your Hazard Communication chemical inventory and training will need to cover the hazards of these batteries and its proper personal protection and safety practices.


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