Congress has played a big part in keeping the public from knowing about the hazards that chemical plants pose to surrounding communities. Public ignorance has kept effective safety and security regulation at bay for over a decade. Now a new interactive database can help environmental reporters see how many schoolkids are at risk from explosions or toxic leaks in each Congressional district.
It matters. It was only a bit of luck that no kids were present at the West, Texas, middle school when ammonium nitrate blew up at 7:50 p.m. on April 17, 2013. The school, near the fertilizer depot that exploded, was wrecked.
The nonprofit Center for Effective Government has compiled an interactive mapping database of some of the most dangerous facilities in the U.S., showing the proximity of chemical facilities to schools. Thoughtfully, the group has also mapped which Congressional districts contain the most schoolkids at risk.
After the Bhopal chemical disaster that killed thousands in India in 1984, Congress passed a law in 1990 requiring facilities handling dangerous amounts of chemicals to file "risk management plans" (RMPs), detailing how many people might be hurt by an explosion or leak. Originally, these plans were supposed to be made public. But in 1999, Congress passed another law (after heavy lobbying by the chemical industry), drastically restricting public access to RMP information. Proponents justified hiding the information by claiming it would provide a "roadmap for terrorists." But in the intervening years, neither Congress nor the executive branch has done much to make chemical-handling facilities safer.
The Center for Effective Government, through RTK-Net, has compiled RMP information from secure government reading rooms and made it available to the public online.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is currently considering changes to its rule on RMPs, although what it can do about disclosure may be limited by law. Comments are due on possible rule changes by October 29, 2014. The regulations.gov docket for the rulemaking is here.
- Schools in Vulnerability Zones by Congressional District, Center for Effective Government.
- Previous Stories: WatchDogs of July 30, 2014, April 30, 2014, April 24, 2013, and May 7, 2009.