By Andrew Rosenberg, director, Center for Science & Democracy
In this rich and powerful democracy that is the United States, the statistics on chemical accidents are more than shocking—they should be a wake-up call. There have been around 30,000 documented accidents per year for the last two decades at least. More than 1,000 people per year have died in these accidents. Nearly half of our population live, and one in three children in this country go to school, near the 3,400 facilities that store or use dangerous chemicals within areas described by industry as “vulnerable.” The families that live within vulnerable zones are disproportionately poor, African-American, or Latino.
Even with these horrifying numbers, press reports have found that the data that is collected by government concerning chemical safety are appallingly inaccurate, underestimating the real number of vulnerable areas and accidents. To understand how pervasive the risks of chemical accidents really are, watch the newsfeed for the US Chemical Safety Board. Every day there is an accident reported, sometimes as many as six a day! And as the chairman of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board has pointed out in the New York Times, without reform, the next accident is just waiting to happen.
We, citizens and scientists in our democracy, need to ask why. Surely we have the resources and a governance system that can do better. One element of that system is the Environmental Protection Agency’s Risk Management Program (RMP), which covers one-third of the facilities in the country. Other agencies, both state and federal, are also responsible for working with industry and communities to reduce risks.
Recent high profile accidents, such as the tragedy in West, Texas, have prompted the EPA to ask for public comment while they consider changes to their RMP. It isn’t easy to comment on such a complex program, but the EPA needs to hear from concerned scientists and citizens. The comment period is open until October 29.
While the Request for Information (RFI) concerning the Risk Management Program has a lot of technical detail that may be hard for all but those with specialized expertise to comment on, we can all provide feedback to the agency. Some important parts of the program concerning public information and transparency (Section II, Part D) afford all of us this opportunity:
- Compliance with Emergency Response Program Requirements in Coordination with Local Responders (Section D-5): The current RMP gives owners and operators of covered chemical facilities a choice with regard to emergency response—either to have their own emergency response plan and employees respond to accidents, or to leave it to the surrounding community to accept the burden of responding. Even as I write this, I find it hard to believe. The companies that are storing or using chemicals can just abdicate responsibility for responding to accidents that endanger the community to local authorities? And, the EPA notes, the majority of facilities have decided not to respond but to leave it to the local government and community. Why take on the cost if you can shift it to local taxpayers? Even worse, the EPA reports that most facilities are not coordinating with community emergency response plans or providing basic information for responding to accidents. They even note cases where the facility prevented information from being communicated to local officials during a serious accident. The EPA is asking for comment on whether owners and operators must accept responsibility unless local public responders have the capability AND AGREE to respond to accidents, as well as clarify the requirement to share information in a timely manner.
- Incident Investigation and Accident History Requirements (Section D-6): One would think that accidents would be investigated and documented thoroughly to gather information and lessons learned to improve safety in the future. Not so, unfortunately. It seems that many accidents are not investigated, particularly if there were no deaths or serious injuries or other impacts resulting. Referred to as near-miss catastrophes, they are described as one step away from a major release of dangerous chemicals. The EPA is now asking if they should strengthen the reporting requirements for accidents including near-misses.
- Public Disclosure of Information to Promote Regulatory Compliance and Improve Community Understanding of Chemical Risks (Section D-8): Public information is at the heart of enabling communities to be ready should an accident occur, and holding owners and operators accountable for reducing risks as much as possible. But in too many cases, information is not available to community planners or even first responders in the event of an emergency. The EPA is asking for comments on the requirements to provide public information including providing information online. As they note, since the rules were last revised, there are many new channels for communication including social media and mobile apps that could increase awareness, preparedness, and responsiveness.
All of these sections of the RFI highlight fundamental issues of transparency and the public’s right to know what is happening in their communities that directly affect the health and safety of their families. With any computer or smartphone, it is possible to find out where to buy virtually any product produced in these facilities around the country. Shouldn’t we also have the ability to know what, where, and how chemicals are produced and stored, and what do to if there is an accident?