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Communities continue to call for stronger protections as chemical incidents rise

A report from the Center for Effective Government

March 13, 2014
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From the Center for Effective Government:

As the number of chemical disasters and injuries continues to mount in 2014, evidence shows that the risks that chemical facilities present to the local communities in which they are located are greater than many residents previously understood. The Center for Effective Government has created a set of maps, showing how close many of these facilities are to schools and hospitals. The maps are helping communities press for new oversight, safer chemicals, and stronger enforcement of existing standards to prevent future disasters.

Background

Ten months ago, 15 people were killed and 200 more were injured in a fertilizer plant explosion in West, TX. The explosion destroyed a school, a nursing home, and an apartment complex. First responders and local residents were unaware of the ammonium nitrate stored in the facility. The explosion exposed the serious risks these facilities pose to communities and underscored huge gaps in our regulatory and enforcement system.

In response to the West tragedy, in August 2013, President Barack Obama issued an executive order requiring the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and the Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to identify policy changes that will significantly enhance the safety and security of chemical facilities. These agencies are holding a series of "listening sessions" around the country to take comments from the public and key stakeholders. Community, labor, and public interest groups have used the sessions to increase awareness of the dangers these facilities represent and to call for new oversight policies, including requiring facilities to switch to safer chemical alternatives and processes when available.

As the policy review continues, more chemical incidents have occurred. Just last week, a chemical fire at a fertilizer storage facility in Northwood, IA led officials to evacuate the town's nearly 2,000 residents.

Mapping Potential Risks

Over the past several months, the Center for Effective Government has mapped data from the EPA to show the proximity of high-risk chemical facilities to schools and hospitals. Our work reveals that the dangers exposed in West, TX are far from isolated. So far, we have produced maps for five states where the Chemical Facility Safety and Security Working Group held listening sessions: Texas, California, Illinois, Louisiana, and New Jersey. Mapping provides a visual way of communicating data quickly and dramatically.

The maps tell a sobering story of numerous chemical facilities that are within a one-mile radius of schools and hospitals. In Texas, 721,742 students in 1,471 schools are within a mile of at least one high-risk chemical facility; 134 hospitals are also within the one-mile zone.

The other states show similar exposure risks. In Illinois, 310,000 students in 816 schools and 51 hospitals are within a mile of a high-risk facility. The California map identified more than half a million students in 938 schools, and at least 70 hospitals, in similar proximity to facilities storing large quantities of dangerous chemicals.

The maps also provide information on the percent of population across each state that is below the poverty line, as high-risk chemical facilities are more often located near low-income and minority populations.

Communities and Maps

Communities across the country have been using our maps to educate local, state, and federal officials; media; and the public and to demonstrate the need for better oversight, safer chemicals, and clear risk management plans. Prior to the Houston, TX listening session, activists in the Manchester area held a community event, showing that 27 schools in their area are within a mile of a chemical facility.

"If the explosions in Mossville or West, Texas occurred in the community of Manchester, the results could be catastrophic. With over one dozen facilities in Manchester, and hundreds throughout Houston, millions of people are in harm's way from these chemical facilities,"

"Whether it's Houston, Texas; Mossville, Louisiana; West, Texas; West Virginia or hundreds of other communities where chemical plants have been allowed to be built – millions of people, disproportionately people of color and low-income communities, are living in harm's way with chemical threats. There is an urgent need to set up strong protections from the toxic and petrochemical industry contamination in our communities, now,"

In Louisiana, the Green Army, a coalition of environmental groups organized by retired Army Lt. Gen. Russell Honoré, called for chemical facilities to provide a better public emergency notification system (such as better siren warning systems to alert nearby residents of problems) and for the management of facilities using hazardous chemicals to hold annual public meetings with communities to tell local residents how to recognize warning signs of a problem, what to do if a toxin is released, and who to call for more safety information. "Right now, we're in the dark," said Honoré.

In the listening sessions, community activists have emphasized the need for the federal government to require high-risk facilities to convert to safer chemicals when alternatives are available and affordable. As the Center for Effective Government has reported in previous articles, safer chemicals and processes are available, but many companies will not switch to safer alternatives without a federal requirement to do so.

Conclusion

Despite the risks posed by chemical facilities, local residents often do not know what chemicals are being produced and stored onsite, nor are they aware of the actions to take when emergencies occur. As more maps and other tools become available, people and groups should use them to become more engaged on this critical issue.

One final listening session is to be held in Newark, NJ on Feb. 27. However, communities in West Virginia are calling on the Working Group to hold a listening session in their state. The public can also submit comments on the Working Group's initial set of policy issues until March 31.

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