Public Risks from Chemical Facilities Aren't Just Theoretical

May 13, 2009

The risks posed to employees and surrounding communities by exposures from facilities that manufacture or use various chemicals received scant attention during the Bush administration, sparked primarily by concerns about terrorist attacks. But few significant new policy or operational changes were initiated.

Meanwhile, accidents and criminal actions at private and government facilities continue to threaten millions of people. As just one example, Houston and Harris Co., TX, are home to at least 248 facilities considered potentially hazardous enough that they have to regularly report their accident history to EPA. In the past 5 years, there have been 56 reported accidents that killed 2 people, injured 93 others, and caused almost $88 million in property damage. One facility alone, the Intercontinental Terminals Company in Deer Park, reported 10 accidents, and the ExxonMobil Baytown Refinery reported 4 accidents. A number of others had multiple accidents. All told, in this county alone there are more than 6.5 billion pounds of flammable chemicals being used, and almost 750 million pounds of toxic chemicals.

To find the accident history in counties you cover, search:

-- Right-to-Know Network, Risk Management Plan database

EPA says that about 14,000 facilities currently meet its criteria for having to file a Risk Management Plan, which includes a company's estimates of potential impacts in case of a disaster; explanations of how the company works to avoid accidents; and descriptions of emergency-response procedures. An RMP must be revised and resubmitted at least every five years, and sooner under some circumstances, such as changes in manufacturing processes. Is your local chemical facility up to date with its RMP?

On March 13, 2009, EPA announced that it had updated its RMP information and had streamlined its process for RMP submittals.

-- EPA Risk Management Plan Rule

One way to help reduce chemical exposures that was advocated by some interest groups and opposed by many others was to require companies to review their manufacturing processes and revise them where possible so that less dangerous procedures and materials were needed. This option made little headway during the Bush administration.

But several US Congressional leaders are pushing this approach now, in response to their investigation of a near-debacle at Bayer CropScience's Institute plant in West Virginia that they say barely avoided being of the same magnitude as the disaster in Bhopal, India in 1984. During the Aug. 28, 2008, West Virginia accident, an explosion nearly ruptured a large tank containing the same chemical, methyl isocyanate (MIC), that killed and injured thousands of people in Bhopal. In addition to the use of this deadly chemical, Congress is investigating the company's "campaign of secrecy" to withhold from Congress, first responders to the accident, the media, and the public some information about its chemical use and manufacturing processes.

-- Joint letter from 4 US Senate and House Committee members to the US Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, May 4, 2009

-- One example of media coverage: "Jay, Waxman Call for Deeper Probe of Bayer MIC," The Charleston Gazette, May 4, 2009, by Ken Ward Jr.

To get one set of perspectives on the impacts that the Bhopal disaster had on its residents, you may want to contact the participants in the Bhopal Survivors Tour 2009, which continues its traverse of the US through May 29, 2009. Twenty-five years later, they continue to seek justice, and additional help, for the damage they suffered:

-- Bhopal Survivors Tour 2009, itinerary.

A few facilities likely have already taken the route of revising operations to use safer processes and chemicals, according to a 2007 assessment by EPA and the Wharton Risk Management and Decision Processes Center. The researchers compared data from 1999-2000, when the first wave of RMPs were submitted by 15,145 facilities, and 2004-2005, when a second wave of renewals and other filings were submitted by 12,065 facilities.

They speculated that the reduction in facilities might have been caused by some facilities switching to safer practices and materials, or by facilities simply altering their practices so that they didn't quite reach the chemical thresholds that trigger the filing of an RMP. The authors also said that there is a possibility that some facilities that are required to file an RMP are not doing so, and that uncertainties about the available data leave open the question of whether actual risk has been reduced in any substantial way.

Another of their findings was that the number of accidents that had off-site consequences did not change significantly from 1999-2000 to 2004-2005, raising the question of whether the current RMP process is providing any meaningful risk reduction.

Security requirements prevented the researchers from disclosing some information about projected impact areas under hypothetical worst-case scenarios (which is included in the RMP section called Off-Site Consequence Analysis). That means that the number of people potentially affected remains tenuous.

However, the authors were able to provide some generalizations. One of these is that a high percentage of the reporting facilities could cause short-term acute health problems in people up to 5 miles away, often affecting up to 100,000 people, and a small percentage could affect people up to and beyond 15 miles, occasionally affecting 1 million or more people. Chronic effects, which have been documented following some accidents, are not considered in these calculations.

-- "Accident Epidemiology and the RMP Rule: Learning from a Decade of Accident History Data for the U.S. Chemical Industry," Dec. 18, 2007; Irv Rosenthal, 215-573-0503.

To evaluate the Off-Site Consequence Analyses for facilities of interest to your audience, you'll need to surmount some significant hurdles. This information is still available only at EPA "reading rooms" (the nearest one of which may be hundreds of miles away), and you can only take notes while reviewing the OCA, not make copies of any information. There are many other limitations:

-- EPA reading rooms, locations, and OCA review parameters.

Additional evidence that some facilities have found it worthwhile and affordable to make their practices inherently safer is provided in a Nov. 19, 2008, report that independent consultant Paul Orum (and Reece Rushing) prepared for the Center for American Progress:

-- "Chemical Security 101: What You Don't Have Can't Leak, or Be Blown Up by Terrorists," Paul Orum, 202-548-4020.

Related reports that Orum has helped prepare include:

-- "Toxic Trains and the Terrorist Threat: How Water Utilities Can Get Chlorine Gas Off the Rails and Out of American Communities" (April 2, 2007).

-- "Preventing Toxic Terrorism: How Some Chemical Facilities Are Removing Danger to American Communities" (April 24, 2006).

Legislation that addressed some of these issues, including the use of safer processes and chemicals, and reduction of risks from terrorist attacks, was introduced in the last session of Congress (110th). HR 5577 stalled, but it is being revised and may be reintroduced in coming months. An incentive for the bill is that current standards addressing these issues are due to expire in October 2009.

-- Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards: Facility Inspections and Interim Final Rule.

As an alternative to the oversight and regulatory approach used with RMPs, experts at Wharton, Duke, and the University of Michigan suggested in a March 2008 paper that private environmental insurance should be considered as a potentially more effective tool to achieve the desired ends of supporting industry while protecting employees and the public. They say this approach has shown some success when used for risk reduction for underground storage tanks, and they say it may be applicable to other environmental risk sources.

-- "Can Environmental Insurance Succeed Where Others Fail? Conceptual Framework & The Case of Underground Storage Tanks."

Meanwhile, EPA is trying to make the RMP process work as intended, in part by nudging companies to file required RMPs:

-- "EPA Warns Facilities: File Updated Risk Management Plans, or Face Penalties," April 27, 2009, Region 2 press release

The Region 2 actions come on the heels of a Feb. 10, 2009, report by the EPA's Inspector General, which found that many companies that are required to file an RMP don't. In addition, the IG says the agency has done a poor job of inspecting facilities that do file an RMP.

-- "EPA Can Improve Implementation of the Risk Management Program for Airborne Chemical Releases."

For Region 8, the law firm of Beveridge & Diamond informed its potentially affected clients via an April 6, 2009, notice that more aggressive oversight and enforcement action on the part of the agency was in the offing, due in part to particularly noteworthy noncompliance problems in that Region.

-- "RMP Inspection Strategy Impacted in EPA Region 8."

In addition to EPA's role, some of the responsibilities for overseeing chemical safety and emergency response have been delegated to State Emergency Response Commissions (SERC), Tribal Emergency Response Commissions, and Local Emergency Planning Committees (LEPC). You can find ones of interest to your audience at:

-- SERCs

-- LEPCs

-- Other pertinent organizations

A 2008 EPA assessment of LEPCs provides a few potential story angles to investigate. For instance, only 60% of the LEPCs that responded to the survey said that they notify the public about the existence of their emergency plan and available chemical hazard information. That leaves a large segment of the population in the dark, if they don't know to ask about such information. In addition, two-thirds of the LEPCs said they inform the public about their plans and chemical information via newspapers. With the changing media environment, that raises an important question about how information will be conveyed to the public in the future. The challenge is compounded by the fact that only 24% of the responding LEPCs currently have a Web site.

-- "2008 Nationwide Survey of Local Emergency Planning Committees."

You may also want to look into the status of any "All-Hazard Emergency Operations Plan" your community may have developed, in accordance with FEMA recommendations:

-- "State and Local Guide (SLG) 101: Guide for All-Hazard Emergency Operations Planning."

For much more information related to chemical safety, see the WatchDog of May 7, 2009; and TipSheets of April 30, 2008; Jan. 17, 2007; and Nov. 24, 2004.