Friday, November 5, 2010

Reader Comment – More than ERP Needed

Yesterday Fred Millar left a comment on my posting about the PHMSA Advisory Bulletin about pipeline operators sharing emergency response plans. He notes that: “Emergency response planning can be of limited value in protecting at-risk populations from releases from facilities or transportation.” He then points at the US Chemical Stockpile Emergency Preparedness Program as a standard that would provide better protection.

The program that Fred mentions was put into place around seven facilities that were beginning the ‘demilitarization’ (destruction in civilian parlance) of the US chemical weapons stockpile. The fear was that the movement of these munitions from the environmentally secure storage facilities and the destruction process would expose the nearby communities to the deadly chemicals weapons. The ‘reliable and tested capabilities’ that Fred refers to included the establishment of a chemical detector/warning system around the facility that would automatically warn neighbors of a release and the provision of chemical protective equipment to the potentially affected neighbors.

Chemical Weapons vs Industrial Chemicals

Many people would note that the chemical rounds covered by the program included some of the most dangerous chemicals in existence. They would note that there is an order of magnitude difference between the hazards associated with nerve agents and common industrial toxic inhalation hazard (TIH) chemicals like chlorine gas. A single drop of nerve agent on the skin can kill a person in seconds. To make matters worse, these chemical weapons are practically impossible for individuals to detect without special equipment.

Chemicals like chlorine gas or anhydrous ammonia (or any other TIH chemical) require a much larger release to provide the same lethal effects. Most of these industrial chemicals have characteristic odors and are extremely irritating in less than lethal concentrations, providing much more warning than the chemical weapons. So if we were talking about artillery shells, aerial bombs or missile warheads containing these industrial chemicals then the Army’s response program would be clearly excessive.

Of course my blog post was not discussing TIH munitions; it was addressing pipeline emergency response planning. The potential amounts of these chemicals that could be released from a pipeline could place significant populations at as much risk for death or serious injury as the release of chemical weapons. So Fred’s comments are not completely out of line.

Emergency Response Planning

I have been discussing emergency response requirements for natural gas pipelines, simply because they are the most common pipelines and were recently involved in the San Bruno incident that attracted so much public attention. There are also a number of shorter hazardous chemical pipelines that transport large quantities of chemicals like chlorine and anhydrous ammonia between manufacturers and industrial consumers. These are also regulated by PHMSA and are specifically covered in the notice discussed in yesterday’s blog posting.

The hazards and consequences for hazardous chemical pipelines are substantially different from those associated with natural gas, and we would expect that the emergency response plans would be substantially different. I would suggest that the emergency response planning process that I have outlined in my recent series of blogs would clearly apply to these pipelines.

The issue that Fred raises is not so much about the planning process, but about what standards must be established about the level of public protection that must be achieved by these plans. This is certainly an issue that is not addressed in any of the emergency response planning requirements in any federal program other than the Army program to which Fred refers.

Legislation that would be necessary to establish the planning process that I have suggested should also address the standards by which the FEMA Emergency Response Coordinator would evaluate the adequacy of the plans submitted, both by industry and local, State and Federal emergency response agencies. Those standards would address the level of protection required.

Protection Standards

Many would suggest (and I suspect Fred would be included) that the Army program should be used as the gold standard against which other programs should be measured. The detection/notification process would provide the maximum amount of time for responders and individuals to react. The provision of protective equipment to all potentially affected personnel would reduce to the maximum possible extent the casualties caused by a significant release. And the recurring exercise-evaluation process would ensure that the plans are effective.

The problem with these standards are that they are extremely expensive. The costs associated with the Chemical Stockpile Emergency Preparedness Program are borne by the US Government, a notorious bottomless pocket (more than a little sarcasm here). That plus the fact that the potentially exposed population was relatively small made the program costs politically reasonable.

Paying for the same level of protection for the worst case accident (or terrorist attack) on a hazmat pipeline would bankrupt both the operator and local response agencies. Many would argue that this is a perfect argument for eliminating these pipelines; the pipeline operator gets the profits, they should pay for the protection. This is a relatively narrow view of the situation; there are economic benefits from these pipelines for a much larger number of people than just the chemical producer, user and pipeline operator. The jobs involved and the benefits from the products produced greatly extend the list of those that ‘profit’ from the pipelines.

The other argument against the imposition of this standard is that it is really not necessary. First off, the argument goes, the risk of a catastrophic failure is very low. Regulatory requirements concentrate on measures that prevent those failures so that the response requirements are not reasonable. Earlier this year PG&E may have said the same thing about their gas pipeline through San Bruno.

Finally, others would argue that the personal protective equipment requirement would be excessive because there are other, less expensive, measures that would provide similar levels of protection. Evacuations and shelter-in-place measures have proven to be very effective in many situations where there are less than catastrophic releases. Even in catastrophic releases like the Greenville, South Carolina chlorine release these measures were mainly effective for the vast majority of the affected population.

In my opinion, there needs to be a definitive discussion about what levels of protection we, as a society, are willing to accept to prevent deaths and serious injuries from these types of accidents/incidents. Preventive measures, while very important, are never going to stop all potential releases. If we demand nearly absolute protection (and absolute protection is absolutely impossible), then we need to decide how we will pay for that protection.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Mr. Coyle,

See "Valuing the Risk of Death from Terrorist Attacks"

Regulations designed to increase homeland security often require balancing large costs against highly uncertain benefits. An important component of these benefits is the reduced risk of fatalities from terrorist attacks. While the risk to an individual appears small, the benefits may be large when aggregated over the population. U.S. regulatory agencies have well-established approaches for valuing mortality risks, but address risks that differ in significant respects from those associated with terrorism. The best available estimates of the value of small risk reductions, expressed as the value per statistical life (VSL), average about $6.5 million. However, terrorism-related risks may be perceived as more dreaded and ambiguous, and less controllable and voluntary, than the workplace risks underlying many VSL estimates. These factors may increase the VSL appropriate for terrorism risks, possibly doubling the value.

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