Tuesday, September 14, 2010

National Conversation on Public Health and Chemical Exposures

Last week the National Conversation on Public Health and Chemical Exposures published a series of draft reports on various aspects of potential public exposures to hazardous chemicals. Of particular importance to the chemical security community is the draft report published by the Chemical Emergencies Work Group, particularly Recommendation #6 of that report dealing with inherently safer technology.

The Conversation

This Conversation is another action sponsored by the Obama Administration that attempts to bring public participation into the public policy debate. The Conversation web site describes the purpose this way:

“The National Conversation on Public Health and Chemical Exposures is a collaborative project, supported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). The National Conversation vision is that chemicals are used and managed in ways that are safe and healthy for all people. The project's goal is to develop an action agenda with clear, achievable recommendations that can help government agencies and other organizations strengthen their efforts to protect the public from harmful chemical exposures. The National Conversation Leadership Council will author the action agenda, utilizing input from project work groups, and members of the public who choose to participate in web dialogues and community conversations.”
The operation of this Conversation is more akin to the QHSR model from last year than the Preparedness Dialogue that just closed. Work Groups met and formulated their ideas about what is necessary to achieve the Conversation objectives. They published those ideas and requested public comments. Those comments will then be used to adjust the final version of the political proposals that will be published by the Leadership Council.

The other difference between this and the earlier public involvement efforts is that this Conversation appears to be a much more one-sided discussion. In the Chemical Emergencies Work Group, for example, there is only one industry representative while a wide range of public advocacy groups are represented. It could be argued that industry is disproportionally represented in the current political processes and that this group restores some balance to the policy setting process. If that were truly the case, however, I would expect to see a large representation of first responders; a group that is curiously not represented in this Work Group.

Recommendation 6 - IST

The discussion of ‘Prevention’ in the Draft Work Group Report noted that (pg 13):

“Prevention includes assessing the risk, prioritizing actions, securing dangerous chemicals and finding safer alternatives to dangerous chemicals. Programs should assure the security of dangerous chemicals during manufacturing, storage, transport and use, preventing accidental or intentional releases.”
After noting that none of the current chemical safety laws “regulate the vulnerability zones that chemical facilities present to surrounding communities in terms of distance, chemical intensity, or population at risk” (pg 10) the Chemical Emergencies working group looks at the House passed version of HR 2868. They note that it “has some language requiring companies to document that they have considered Inherently Safer Technologies” and note that “it could have a positive impact on chemical safety”.

Only one of the twelve recommendations made by the Working Group addresses prevention efforts. That is Recommendation #6, “Congress should pass a law requiring facilities to assess, and in certain cases to implement, safer and more secure alternatives that can reduce or eliminate the possibility of toxic gas releases.” (pg 21)

The Recommendation goes on to note that: “The only certain way to protect our communities is to remove the possibility of a toxic gas release by converting facilities to safer, more secure alternative technologies.” While this statement is undoubtedly true in a limited sense, it fails to take into account that we make risk-benefit decisions every day, accepting low-probability threats for high certainty benefits.

The Working Group failed to include benefit considerations nor does it address the cost issue of implementation. They only addressed two considerations in their recommended IST calculation:

“The primary criterion for substitution should be to reduce the number of people potentially exposed to acutely toxic gases. Additional criteria should be to reduce the probability of release and/or to reduce the toxicity of the material that would potentially be released.”
No Conversation

With a completely one-sided view of the IST issue, this Recommendation does little to contribute to the current debate in Congress on whether or not to include an IST assessment/implementation provision in legislation to re-authorize CFATS or extend it to water treatment facilities. The only counter view acknowledgment included in the document is the phrase “it is receiving a lot of push back and may be stricken” (pg 10) describing IST provisions in the House passed version of HR 2868.

A footnote (#7 on page 21) to the Working Group Report noted that one member of the group (the sole industry representative from the American Petroleum Institute) did not support the Recommendation. This certainly indicates that there was at least some internal discussion of the pros and cons of the issue. The failure to document that discussion in the presentation leading up to the Recommendation reflects the intellectual dishonesty that has been seen in too much of the discussion (on both sides of the issue) about IST.

An honest ‘conversation’ would have at least addressed the issues of cost of assessment and implementation, the potential for job losses, and the process for conducting an assessment of the inherently safer alternatives. If the group then determined that the potential costs were outweighed by the potential liabilities, then it would have been a recommendation that could have contributed to the political conversation taking place in Congress.

As it is, this recommendation will be dismissed out-of-hand by the industry and political opponents of inherently safer technology mandates. Instead of contributing to the discussion it contributes to the noise that drowns out the potential for reasonable people to formulate a reasonable compromise. Which is a shame; this shouting match has been going on for eight years now and shows no sign or resolution.

Normally at this point in my blog I would tell you that public comments are being accepted on this Conversation and provide you with information on the methodology for making those comments. I am not going to do that for this ‘Conversation’. There is absolutely nothing that indicates that such comments would have any affect on the pre-determined conclusions of the Chemical Emergencies Working Group.

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