Do Firefighters Have a Right To Know About Hazmats They Face? Do You?

May 20, 2015

When the alarm went off in 2013, ten volunteer firefighters rushed toward the burning fertilizer plant in West, Texas, that exploded and killed them. Certain federal laws are meant to give first responders information about the risks they face. But those laws often fail to protect emergency personnel — protecting companies instead.

The watchdog group Center for Effective Government offers data tools that partly offset government failures to protect people from dangerous materials that poison or injure people, burn, or explode. They are also tools for journalists trying to inform their communities.

The West, Texas, explosion killed five other people, injured 200, and leveled 37 city blocks. Perhaps if the public had really understood the risk, the city would not have allowed three schools and a nursing home to be located within the blast zone.

A new report from the Center for Effective Government concludes: "Access to state data on hazardous chemicals is difficult for the public to obtain in many states" — despite federal law. The Center has created an interactive map showing the prevalence of nine of the most hazardous chemicals in six Midwestern states — an ideal jumping-off point for deeper journalistic probes.

Some of the biggest and most dangerous facilities were required to report hazards under the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA) of 1986. Congress imposed further requirements, including "Risk Management Plans," in section 112(r) of the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments. These requirements have been refined and implemented under numerous U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rules since then.

But federal reporting requirements do not cover all the risks, and the information that is reported often fails to get through to communities and first responders. There was no federal requirement to report the ammonium nitrate that blew up West, Texas. The Center for Effective Government found that only 15 percent of the facilities with the nine hazmats the center studied were reported to the federal government.

At the urging of chemical companies, Congress partly restricted public access to Risk Management Plans (RMPs). The Right-To-Know Network, an arm of the Center for Effective Government, has compiled key portions of the RMPs and published the information in a searchable online database — another tool for reporters looking for local chemical hazards.

Journalists may want to look for hazmat facility databases in their own states. Some states require reporting from facilities that fall below the federal reporting thresholds — and some of those make the data available.

One other standard tool for journalists seeking hazmat threats to their communities is the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI), which covers a wider range of chemicals and facilities. It is maintained by EPA, online and searchable.

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