Modernized controls facilitate smooth recovery after wildfire

By Chris McNamara

Sep 13, 2018

There’s not much that can get to the Iochem plant in rural Vici, Oklahoma. It’s lost amid wide-open spaces in the northwest corner of the Sooner State. No trendy nightclubs nearby. Scrub and gravel surround the iodine-producing facility. Hell, they don’t even have 911 emergency phone service out here.

But fire had no problem scorching a large swath of this region back in early 2018—the Rhea Wildfire burned for weeks, sending flames hundreds of feet into normally tranquil skies.

And that was a serious problem for the Iochem facility located in the fire’s circuitous path, particularly for Plant Foreman Craig Randolph and Chemist/Quality Manager Shuhei Shimizu, who described the episode in a presentation at this week’s Yokogawa Users Conference in Orlando.

“It seemed like every day the wind changed directions,” said Randolph, who along with coworkers kept one eye on fire updates and one eye on the incinerator, cooling tower, pumps and filtering systems within their facility. “Then one day a plume of smoke overhead darkened the sun.”

Time to go.

Early in the wildfire’s appearance, authorities officially warned plant personnel about the imminent danger. The following day authorities forced evacuation. The plant crew secured assets then skedaddled as the region suffered a power outage due to crackling and crumbling H-towers that had been supporting power lines.

Modernization underway

Thankfully, this facility had been in the process of digitizing its analog elements, modernizing the plant with capabilities afforded by Yokogawa’s CENTUM VP, a control system architecture consisting of human-machine interfaces, field-control stations and control network supporting continuous and batch process control, in addition to manufacturing-operations management.

Customized in this instance for the iodine producer, the system monitors and controls variables such as propane flow and water levels. A single interface details the status of all facility assets—tanks and cooling tower and incinerator. The system affords newfound insights into airflow and exhaust systems. The night-shift can now be unmanned, with triggers signaling those abnormalities that require human intervention.

The system also enables the facility to maintain itself in emergency situations (i.e. wildfires), while assisting personnel in prioritizing problem solving. Fix this first, then fix that. “If something goes wrong within the plant, I don’t always have to immediately go there,” said Shimizu. “The CENTUM VP system can put the plant into a calm-down mode, essentially.”

Added Randolph, “You can lose power without losing control of the system.”

Losing control of the system is a serious concern. Joked Shimizu, “When you have a two-story-tall tin can you want to make sure it doesn’t blow up.”

Spoiler alert: The incinerator—that two-story-tall tin can—didn’t blow up.

The Rhea Wildfire ultimately blackened nearly 300,000 acres and claimed a pair of lives before being extinguished after two weeks. It was a tragedy, for sure. But if anything optimistic can be gleaned from the episode it is this—the control system within the Iochem plant performed perfectly. Shutdown was smooth. There were no surprises during the three days the facility was out of operation. And within 30 seconds of rebooting after everybody had returned, all systems were online. “We came back and turned it on. It was that easy,” said Shimizu.

The cooling tower jumped back into service. The exhaust fans started spinning. The plant foreman and the quality manager resumed their daily duties. And the incinerator heated up without a hitch, burning after the worrisome wildfire with reassuring normalcy and a touch of irony.