Friday, October 10, 2008

New Jersey Chemical Rules Not Enough

New Jersey is usually included on a short list of states that has the toughest chemical safety and security regulations. Earlier this week an alliance of labor, environmental and community organizations, the New Jersey Work Environment Council, published a detailed report of why they think those rules are not tough enough. The report names 99 facilities that the group claims still threaten local communities with potential releases of toxic and flammable chemicals, little places like New York City and Philadelphia.


Populations at Risk


The report takes publically available information about the amount of chemicals at chemical facilities (including water treatment plants), the distance of concern for a ‘worst case’ release of those chemicals, and the population within that distance of concern circle to paint a picture of the potential hazards from accidental releases and/or terrorist attacks. The data is available in ‘public reading rooms’ (not the internet) in the Risk Management Plans (RMP) that chemical companies are required to file under Federal and New Jersey law.


This publically available data is required, under Federal law, to be available to the public. It used to be available on the internet, but after the 9-11 attacks the information was removed from the internet. It was felt that the information on the internet would make it too easy for terrorists to research high-risk chemical facilities for the purpose of making target lists. Many security personnel were not happy that the information was still available in reading rooms, but regulators noted that it was unlikely that terrorists would self-identify by coming into the potentially monitored, government controlled reading rooms.


The ‘population at risk’ data is included in the RMP data provided by the companies. It is calculated by determining a ‘distance of concern’ for the release of toxic chemicals or the overpressure of an explosion of flammable chemicals. That distance of concern is calculated by an government supplied formula and the characteristics of the particular chemical. A circle with the radius of that distance is drawn centered on the chemical facility and the population within that circle is counted.


Thus the population at risk is the total number of people that could possibly be affected by a worst case release. The actual number affected in an actual release would be much smaller for toxic releases since the winds blowing the chemical plume would carry the chemical to only a very small percentage of the population at risk. The number is much more representative of the potentially affected population for flammable chemicals if the chemical were completely released and the entire resulting fuel-air cloud detonated in one blast. That is seldom, if ever, seen in an accidental release, but it would be the goal of a successful terrorist attack.


Interestingly, 20 of the 99 facilities listed in the report (Table 1, “Worst Case” Potential of Facilities in New Jersey) show “0” as the population at risk of a such a release. An additional 12 facilities in that table show listed populations of less than 100; in many cases fewer than the number of site employees that would be affected.


Report Recommendations


The report makes seven recommendations for improvement of the New Jersey chemical manufacturing environment. They include:


  • “Require facility management to actually adopt feasible inherently safer technology (IST)
  • “Provide Opportunity for Community Involvement
  • “Ensure that Local Emergency Plans Inform the Community
  • “Mandate Joint Employee/Employer Site Safety and Security Committees with authority to help prevent toxic releases at TCPA facilites (sic)
  • “Conduct a study to determine whether disinvestment and downsizing by New Jersey’s chemical industry increases dangers to workers and surrounding communities
  • “Ensure transparency
  • “Provide sufficient staff and resources for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection”

Two of these recommendations parallel what the House Homeland Security Committee came up with in their proposed HR 5577. Both the IST recommendation and employee involvement recommendation were included as well defined programs in that bill. This report does not provide enough details on either to evaluate how effective or how intrusive either provision would be.


Community Involvement


Three of the recommendations dealwith keeping the community informed about the risks and emergency response plans. The report notes that:


  • “Currently, facilities are required to develop emergency response plans to address toxic disasters and keep these plans on site. Although many facilities share these plans with emergency responders, plans are often not communicated to local residents. Therefore, neighbors do not know what specific steps to take in the event of a toxic or flammable release.”

As I noted in a blog earlier this week (see: “USFA Reports on Well Executed Emergency Response”) an emergency response plan that has not been communicated to all of the involved people is unlikely to provide adequate response. If a reverse 911 call goes out recommending a

‘shelter-in-place’ and the local neighbors don’t know what that means, people are not going to respond properly. If the local fire department is not aware of characteristics of the chemicals involved (see: “CSB Reports on Little General Store Propane Explosion”), they are just as likely to make the problem worse than better.


Downsizing Affects Safety and Security


The report calls for a study on the effects on downsizing and reduced investments on facility safety. There is no supporting documentation or reasoning provided to support this recommendation, a surprising and disappointing oversight. Anyone that has worked at any kind of facility with a budget crunch knows that maintenance is one of the first areas that gets cut. In any facility the management has to be careful that those budgets reductions do not shortchange anything that cuts into safety. How the State of New Jersey will be able to assess that while reducing its own expenditures will be interesting to observe.


Adequate Oversight Funding


The last recommendation is the most critical. Anytime regulations require companies to do things that cost money, but do not directly contribute to profits, someone has to watch to make sure that all companies comply. Some will voluntarily comply, just because it is the right thing to do, but many will not. If there is not adequate funding for the inspection and enforcement side of the equation, the proposed regulations will never be fully implemented.

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