April 17 marks the second anniversary of the West, Texas fertilizer facility explosion. The disaster killed 15 people – most of them first responders – and injured 200 more. The blast leveled nearby schools and a nursing home. Had it happened during school hours, it could have killed hundreds of children.
In the two years since the West disaster, communities, advocates, President Barack Obama, the U. S. Chemical Safety Board and other public officials have called for stronger chemical safeguards. Some companies have made progress, switching to safer chemicals to reduce the risks to workers and nearby residents.
But a large number of production and storage facilities use, produce and store large quantities of extremely hazardous chemicals. Through a new interactive map and report, “Chemical Hazards in Your Backyard: Do Your First Responders Have the Information They Need in an Emergency?,” the Center for Effective Government identifies over 4,600 industrial facilities in six states (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin) that store tons of dangerous chemicals.
Key findings of the report include:
- Access to state data on hazardous chemicals is difficult for the public to obtain in many states. The Center for Effective Government was able to acquire the full hazardous chemical inventory that facilities report to state authorities under EPCRA for only five out of 50 states and received partial inventories from five others. Only Illinois makes the full data available online. Texas does not release chemical information to the public at all, and Nevada refused an information request.
- In examining the chemical data reported to six states (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin), the center found nine, very hazardous chemicals in common use in large quantities. In just these six states, 1,724 facilities kept over 600 million pounds of these nine toxic, flammable or explosive chemicals on their premises (acetone, calcium hypochlorite, dimethoate, fluosilicic acid, methanol, phenol, styrene, toluene and xylenes). The risks from these chemicals are significant, but because they are not included on the EPA’s Risk Management Program list, these facilities do not have to file detailed safety and risk assessments for these chemicals with the federal government.
- In these six states, 3,161 facilities report to EPA because they have such large quantities of the 140 substances that the agency tracks under the Risk Management Program. These facilities must produce and send in risk management plans every five years because of the presence of these chemicals. But the risk management plans submitted to the federal government do not have to note or take into account dangerous chemicals that fall outside of the program’s list. This happened at West, Texas, where the risk management plan did not mention that tons of ammonium nitrate were at the site because it is not on the EPA list, though it did note that anhydrous ammonia was being stored there. If the anhydrous ammonia tanks would have ruptured in the explosion, a poisonous cloud could have enveloped the town.
“About two thirds report and register risk management plans for these chemicals with the federal EPA under its Risk Management Program,” said Katherine McFate, president and CEO of the center. “But a third only provide an inventory of the chemicals they hold to state oversight authorities, who then pass information down to local emergency planning committees, established under the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act of 1986.”
McFate said these local committees are supposed to develop emergency response plans and share them with local first responders.
“This cumbersome, fragmented system needs to be modernized to ensure communities and first responders know the risks and to encourage local facilities to switch to safer chemicals and technologies, the most effective disaster prevention strategy,” she added.
The Center for Effective Government has created an interactive map that shows the facilities that report to the federal program and those with large quantities of the nine common hazardous chemicals that report only to state programs. Surprisingly, only about 15 percent of the facilities with these nine toxins at the state level reported to the federal program for highly hazardous chemicals.
The data is important because emergency responders and community residents need to understand what kinds of materials are involved in leaks, fires and explosions and be prepared to respond appropriately.