Earlier this week Fred Millar responded to my blog on Greenpeace and Sen. Collins with a comment that looked at how fast a toxic cloud would spread after a catastrophic release. Fred’s entire comment is worth reading. I would like to discuss, however, Fred’s closing comment about the effectiveness of Local Emergency Planning Committees: “This is one more piece of evidence on how dismally our two federal Right to Know laws have been thwarted by those who want to keep the public in the dark.”
With only a little bit of nit-picking about word choice, what Fred is surely trying to say is that 1) LEPCs do a poor job of communicating the full details of potential chemical risks from (both deliberate and accidental) chemical releases, and 2) that they are prevented from communicating these risks by the chemical companies.
Emergency Response Planning
Since I have next to no personal experience with LEPC’s (as far as I can tell there are no local LEPC’s in the areas where I live or work), I am going to have to be careful in how I respond to this. I have read enough news reports about chemical incidents to assume that in general Fred is correct in his first point. I have heard of very few situations where it was apparent that local first responders were well aware of the hazards at local facilities, much less the public. I have read of a number of exceptions, but have seen too many reports where police and fire personnel making evacuation or shelter-in-place announcements drove into a chemical cloud and were injured as a result. Fortunately, I haven’t heard of any deaths attributed to this kind of response.
The second point is even harder to refute. There have been too many news stories of chemical facility management failing to give adequate information to emergency response personnel during an incident. The outsider would find it easy to assume that there was a conspiracy trying to hide the deadly information (actually information about potentially deadly situations) from the public. I don’t think that this failure to communicate is always (or even usually) caused by deliberate desire to keep the public in the dark.
Based upon my experience working in the chemical industry, these communication lapses are often (certainly not always) caused by two things. First and foremost, during an incident the facility management is too busy trying to define and respond to the incident on-site to think about providing good information to outsiders. Now this is short sighted and self-defeating, but it comes from the best motivations not the worst; they are trying to solve an immediate and difficult problem, the ‘stupid questions’ from ‘ignorant outsiders’ are not helping.
The second problem actually aggravates (and actually may cause) the first problem. This is the very real failure on the part of many engineers to really consider the ‘worst case scenario’ as actually being possible. I have heard too many ‘that can’t happen here’ comments over the years about the EPA/OSHA worst case tank failures. First off, those types of failures are really rare, and they are usually caused by poor maintenance procedures; something that no one will admit to having.
All of this leads to facility management, which is nearly always engineers, putting the emergency response planning well down on their priority list. If it ‘can’t happen here’, then why should I waste my valuable time on an effective emergency response plan? Unfortunately, without a good plan in place, practiced and updated there is no way that there will be an effective response to a real emergency.
Lack of Oversight
Now these reasons (both mine and Fred’s) are what caused the Federal Government to step in and require community hazard communication and emergency planning for all facilities with substantial quantities of selected hazardous materials. Unfortunately, there was a major flaw in those laws; there were no provision for outside review/approval of emergency response plans. Nor was there any outside review/approval of the information communicated to neighboring communities. This lack of oversight effectively told facilities that it wasn’t really important.
It wasn’t that the requirements weren’t important; no the reason for lack of oversight was that proper oversight would be too difficult to do. DHS is finding out how hard it is to get an adequate response to difficult planning requirements. They have been working for months on getting a few Tier 1 SSP’s brought up to the level where they can be physically inspected. There is no telling how long it will take to get inspection discrepancies corrected to the point where DHS can give final approval to these SSPs.
It will be interesting to see how closely DHS inspectors will look at the emergency response plans associated with the site security plans for these high-risk facilities. If they start talking to LEPC’s and local first responders, there might be some movement to make these plans workable. If they don’t, then we will continue to see LEPC’s and emergency response personnel who are left in the dark. And that’s a bad place to be when there are toxic clouds approaching.
I spent 15 years in the US Army as an Infantry NCO. After getting out of the Army I started working in the chemical industry, getting my BSc Chemistry degree while working as a technician. I spent 12 years working as a process chemist in a specialty chemical company. I'm now working as a QA Manager in a specialty chemical manufacturing facility.