Chemical Safety: Right-To-Know? No — Not Exactly

August 14, 2013

The system for informing Americans about the threats to their health and safety posed by chemical plants is seriously broken, a Reuters investigation revealed August 10, 2013.

The April 17, 2013, explosion of a fertilizer plant in the town of West, Texas, was a reminder that there is very little federal regulation of chemical safety in the US. There is a reason for that. After the chemical plant disaster in Bhopal, India, killed thousands there in 1984, the US chemical industry feared that safety regulations would be imposed in this country.

The chemical industry headed off real regulation by striking a grand bargain with legislators and environmentalists: They agreed to disclose information about the chemicals they were handling — and the threats they present to nearby communities — in a series of laws and amendments. One keystone is the Emergency Planning and Community Right-To-Know Act (EPCRA), first passed in 1986. One reason environmentalists agreed was that they thought awareness of chemical threats would create public pressure on companies to make their plants safer. To some extent, that is what happened.

One part of EPCRA, known as "Tier 2," requires chemical facilities to list the hazardous chemicals they are handling and report them to state and local agencies, and also requires the state and local agencies to disclose these lists to the public.

An extensive investigation by Reuters reporters M.B. Pell, Ryan McNeill, and Selam Gebrekidan, however, found that the "27-year-old U.S. program intended to warn the public of the presence of hazardous chemicals is flawed in many states due to scant oversight and lax reporting by plant owners."

A key purpose of the information is to help first responders. Better information in the West, Texas, case might well have saved firefighters' lives.

"But facilities across the country often misidentify these chemicals or their location, and sometimes fail to report the existence of the substances altogether," Reuters reported. "And except for a handful of states, neither federal nor local authorities are auditing the reports for errors."

Very often the local agency that keeps this data is an arm of the local fire department. Reporters have a legally mandated right to the information, and they can sometimes keep safety officials and plant operators on their toes by asking for it — and writing stories with what they find.

Tier 2 reports are only available to the public through the states.

While the Tier 2 reports are important, journalists who want to find out about hazardous chemicals in their communities have a number of other tools available. One is the Toxics Release Inventory.

Another investigative tool is the so-called Risk Management Plans for hazardous chemical facilities. While Congress has forced EPA to make these hard to get, they are publicly available. The Right-To-Know Network, an arm of the Center for Effective Government, has compiled them in an easy-to-access form.