Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Reader Comment 08-20-10 Effectiveness of RTK

Last week Fred Millar left two questions appended to my post about Emergency Response Planning. His second question is going to take some time to research, but I do have an opinion based response to his first question: “Ask why our 2 major federal Right-to-Know laws have failed (both involve emergency response planning) to communicate risks to the public.”

RTK Communications

I don’t think that it is fair to say that the right-to-know (RTK) rules have failed to communicate risks to the public. First there isn’t any positive requirement to “communicate risks” to the public, facilities simply have to make certain information available in specified ways. While there have been specific failures of these information requirements, they frequently result in significant fines by EPA or agreed upon contributions to local emergency response efforts.

The required information is certainly available to the public. We can see this in very active publicity campaigns by private organizations like the Center for American Progress, Greenpeace and PIRG. Their information has all come from the required public information disclosures made available by the companies involved.

‘Communication of risk’ is certainly different from the current information requirements. Risk involves a complex calculation of combining of potential consequences and the likelihood of a release occurring. Accidental releases have some history which would allow for a calculation of accidental release probability and there are established methodologies for estimating consequences.

Terrorist attacks have not occurred against chemical facilities so it is much more difficult to calculate a probability of an attack occurring. In fact, many in the industry would argue that the lack of such an attack since 9-11, or even the report of a credible plan of such an attack, indicates that there is a vanishingly small probability of such an attack happening in the future (I think this is more wishful thinking than valid reasoning). In any case, there is no easy way to establish a realistic probability of such an attack occurring.

Furthermore, the public response or relative lack thereof, to the numerous news articles and TV news reports about the risk of large-scale chemical release in the last couple of years indicates that most of the public does not care to listen to such communication. Part of it is caused by the endless reports about terrorist threats without a credible attempt at an attack. Another major part is that people are just not interested in looking at risk in general.

Now we can certainly discuss the EPA’s removal of much of the chemical risk information from the internet in the name of security. Making the information available in ‘Reading Rooms’ means that the information is really only available to the active researcher not the general public. I understand the EPA’s reasoning, but there should have been a public discussion of the issue before the unilateral move was made.

RTK Emergency Response

One thing that I will certainly agree with, however, is that the emergency response planning component of the current RTK rules has proven to be almost completely inadequate. There are some notable exceptions, but even where there are realistic planning efforts made, there has been little or no communication of those plans made to the potentially affected public. As we saw in New Orleans, failure to communicate emergency response plans (ERP) to the affected public in advance dooms such plans to complete failure.

Part of the problem is that the responsibility for ERPs has been given to Local Emergency Planning Committees (LEPC) that are have little or no training for conducting emergency response planning. Completing a couple of on-line FEMA courses does make one a professional planner. Furthermore, the lack of funding and oversight dooms most of these efforts to complete failure.

One of the things that I would certainly advocate in adding to any comprehensive re-write of the current CFATS authorization would be that a realistic emergency response planning requirement be included in that legislation. I would like to see a requirement that in any area including a high-risk chemical facility with release chemicals of interest capable of off-site consequence being that the LEPC should moved into a more professional status under direct FEMA supervision and funding.

Standards would need to be set about ERP components, coordination and exercises. Participation in the ERP process would be an inspectable part of the facility’s site security plan. Part of the funding would come from the covered facility, but most should come from a specific federal budget line item. Such LEPCs would be required to have active representation at the State or local fusion center.

RTK for Transportation

Fred would be quick to point out that communities along rail lines and truck transport routes receive little or no information about hazardous chemicals that transit their community. I would reply that they do receive minimal hazmat information in the form of placards on the railcars and trailers containing hazardous materials. This information and format are mainly useful for first responders coming upon an incident and are of little use for community ERP purposes.

There is an active debate about community RTK and transportation security interests. Both sides have legitimate points of view. Added to that debate is the concern of railroads about having to set up communications systems with each little political entity along their extensive rail lines.

I think that a reasonable railroad RTK program could be established by Congress along the following lines. First since railroads are already collecting data about their toxic inhalation hazard (TIH) shipment routes, I think that it would be reasonable for them to provide to State Fusion Centers a list of rail lines that are routinely scheduled to handle TIH shipments and list the TIH chemicals on those routes. Fusion Centers could then pass that information to LEPCs along those routes. This would allow communities to develop ERPs for those shipments.

Individual shipment notification is more problematic. Advance notification of individual shipments could legitimately be targeting information for potential terrorist attacks. That plus the fact that there will not typically be any local response for a routine shipment leads to the conclusion that advance notice of shipments should not routinely be made.

Communities do have a more arguable need to know when TIH railcars are actually transiting their area of responsibility. I have proposed a notification methodology on the FEMA National Dialogue on Preparedness (HAZMAT Rail Shipment Notifications) that I think will provide a reasonable solution to this problem. I urge readers of this blog to visit that site and provide appropriate feed back in that forum since it is more likely to get a government response than the discussion here will.

Truck based transportation of TIH materials presents a much more difficult problem, especially since they may be more vulnerable since they can be stolen and moved to a specific target. I’ll leave discussion of this problem for a later date.

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