In the light of the lack of inspections of the West Fertilizer facility before it blew up, there is an increasing concern about someone taking a look at the safety of all sorts of hazardous material storage areas across the country. This makes a recent short article at SacBee.com more than a little scary. (NOTE: This is an article based upon an original article in the Orange County (CA) Register, but that paper requires a subscription or pay-per-view for web access, so I’ll have to rely on SacBee.com for my limited facts.)
It seems that there have been accusations that the local fire authority has been charging for hazmat inspections that it hasn’t been doing or maybe just not properly documenting. In any case there has been enough of concern about the issue to transfer the responsibility for the hazmat inspections to the local Health Care Agency.
The West Fertilizer incident clearly underlines the point that the government (at multiple levels and multiple agencies) has been less that attentive to the matter of insuring the proper storage and handling of hazardous materials. Part of the problem has been legislative, part manpower (which is also legislative at its base), and part a reluctance to upset the economic applecart.
At the Federal level there is no quick action (regardless of Sen. Boxer’s demand) to the problem. Even if the Congress were to appropriate and authorize a billion dollar federal inspection program today, it would be a decade before the action could possibly show real improvement. Just look at the CFATS problems with responsibility for only 4,000 facilities.
Realistically there is only one agency that is going to have any chance of starting to improve any of this in the near term and that is the local fire department. They are already supposed to be notified about the possession of any of a limited number of hazardous chemicals by a commercial entity (and no, ammonium nitrate fertilizer didn’t make that cut; reactive chemicals in general have been ignored by Congress and the Executive Branch – other than the CSB which has been a voice crying in the wilderness on this issue). And more importantly, the local fire department is the agency that is going to bear the brunt of any response to a hazmat incident.
Now the big problem here is the matter of expertise. Hazmat response is a specialized part of the fire-fighting profession and not all city fire departments have that expertise on hand. And volunteer fire departments are almost universally lacking in this training because of funding issues. But, even without specific expertise in hazmat response, veteran firefighters are going to have some idea about safe storage and handling of at least flammable liquids and gasses.
At a minimum, having local fire inspectors or experienced fire fighters walking through facilities that handle significant amounts of hazardous materials will be a first step in reducing the hazards to local communities. Providing specific hazmat inspection training and funding for that training would be a relatively low cost to improve that first step significantly.
Health Department Inspections
I have been advocating for a number of years now that the current community right-to-know laws ought to be expanded to include mandating notification of local health authorities of the storage of hazardous materials, particularly toxic materials. My reasoning is that the local hospitals and emergency rooms will bear the onus of medically treating the victims of any release. Proper planning for chemical mass casualty events will require foreknowledge of the chemicals involved and that is not currently guaranteed.
Adding hazmat inspections to the load of the local health department was never part of that suggestion. Now it seems (according to their web site) that the Orange County, CA Health Care Agency does already have some industrial response responsibility (mostly for industrial cleanup oversight and underground storage tank oversight), but that is not quite the same thing as having expertise in the storage and handling of bulk hazardous chemicals.
An argument could certainly be made that local health department could have some sort of oversight responsibility for industrial hygiene at such facilities, but even that requires specialized training and knowledge that would not be found at most health departments. And let’s not even talk about the expense of such a program when health department funding is already very tight.
We have come a long way in industrial chemical safety over the last forty years or so. And we still have a long way to go. Solving the problems that were highlighted by the West Fertilizer explosion will not be easy or cheap. Local communities not wanting to wait a decade (or more) for an effective response by the Federal government should take a first step by having their local fire departments take a more proactive role in inspecting facilities that contain significant (reportable) quantities of hazardous chemicals.
Because of training limitations (a correctable problem in a shorter time frame than waiting for federal inspections), those inspections may not be perfect, but they will be a valuable first step.