As the second anniversary of the West, Texas fertilizer plant explosion nears, this report asks the question that haunted the community in the aftermath of the tragedy: why didn’t the people who arrived to help fight the fire know that extremely flammable and explosive materials were inside?
Ten volunteer firefighters who rushed toward the fire were among the 15 killed in the explosion that followed. In addition to the deaths, the explosion destroyed three schools, a nursing home, and 37 city blocks, and over 200 people were injured. But it seems that neither the firefighters nor the town officials who approved the school sitings fully understood the risks the fertilizer storage facility presented.
Congress passed a law almost three decades ago that was designed to ensure that local communities are fully aware of hazardous substances near them and that emergency personnel know what to do in the event of a disaster like West, Texas. A few years later, an additional law required more reporting and planning. But local communities in many areas of the country still seem unaware and unprepared to deal with emergencies. As the number of chemical facilities increases and population centers expand, as plants age and inspection funds decline, the number of individual Americans at risk from toxic emissions, leaks, and explosions will grow.
This report examines the chemical reporting to states that occurs under the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act of 1986 (EPCRA), using a sample of six states, and the reporting to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that was established under the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments and the federal Risk Management Program.
Access to state data on hazardous chemicals is difficult for the public to obtain in many states. We were able to acquire the full hazardous chemical inventory that facilities report to state authorities under EPCRA for only five out of 50 states; we received partial inventories from five others. Only Illinois makes the full data available online. Texas does not release chemical information to the public at all, and Nevada refused our information request for dubious reasons.
In examining the chemical data reported to six states (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin), we found nine very hazardous chemicals in common use in large quantities. In just these six states, 1,724 facilities kept over 600 million pounds of these nine highly toxic, flammable, or explosive chemicals on their premises. The risks from these chemicals are significant. But because they are not included on the EPA’s Risk Management Program list, these facilities do not have to file detailed safety and risk assessments for these chemicals with the federal government.
In these six states, 3,161 facilities report to EPA because they have such large quantities of the 140 very hazardous substances that the agency tracks under the Risk Management Program. These facilities must produce and send in risk management plans every five years because of the presence of these chemicals. But the risk management plans submitted to the federal government do not have to note or take into account dangerous chemicals that fall outside of the program’s narrow list. This happened at West, Texas, where the risk management plan did not mention that tons of ammonium nitrate were at the site because it is not on the EPA list, though it did note that anhydrous ammonia was being stored there. If the anhydrous ammonia tanks would have ruptured in the explosion, a poisonous cloud could have enveloped the town.
The Center for Effective Government has created an interactive map showing the facilities that report to the federal program and those with large quantities of the nine common hazardous chemicals that report only to state programs. Surprisingly, only about 15 percent of the facilities with these nine toxins at the state level reported to the federal program for highly hazardous chemicals.
The data is important because emergency responders and community residents need to understand what kinds of materials are involved in leaks, fires, and explosions and be prepared to respond appropriately.
Make state chemical reports available online. Making this information easily accessible would give first responders and residents a place to find information quickly and efficiently when an incident occurs.
Improve local emergency planning. States can combine their data with federal Risk Management Program information to target resources toward the communities with the greatest vulnerability to chemical risks.
Add all highly hazardous chemicals to the Risk Management Program’s list. EPA should work with state agencies to collect and merge their Tier II records into a national database and then identify all toxic, flammable, and volatile chemicals that should be added to the federal list. This will allow local communities to take advantage of the more in-depth planning that occurs when facilities create risk management plans under the program.
Put EPA Risk Management Program data online. The EPA does not post Risk Management Program information online. If it did, it would make it easier for first responders, local officials, residents, researchers, and others to have a complete picture of chemical risks when developing emergency plans.
Industrial chemical facilities have significantly reduced the pollutants they release in nearby communities over the past 30 years. But we have miles to go with chemical safety. It’s time to start the journey.