Monday, September 19, 2005

Chemical Katrinas: Are We Prepared? (3 Guesses)

As a result of laws passed by Congress over the past twenty years, Americans have the tools to be knowledgeable about the chemical hazards in their communities, and, working with public authorities and the companies that use the chemicals, should be able to respond effectively to any releases. But the events surrounding Katrina, as well as a number of lesser known chemical-related incidents raise serious doubts about the success of those efforts.

But way of background, in 1986 Congress passed the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA), partly as a result of the 1984 Bhopal disaster. EPCRA established requirements for reporting on hazardous and toxic chemicals, but also requirements regarding emergency planning and “Community Right-to-Know” to help increase the public’s knowledge and access to information on chemicals at individual facilities, their uses, and releases into the environment.

Under the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 Congress and EPA's resulting Risk Management Program regulations, companies that use certain chemicals are required to file chemical accident prevention plans that include worst-case and other and more likely accident scenarios; the facility's accident prevention practices and emergency response program.

Meanwhile, since 9/11, homeland security funds have become available to states and subdivisions that develop "All Hazards" Emergency Operations Plans that are supposed to address chemical, as well as other hazards from terrorism to chemical releases to hurricanes.

How well are these programs working? Not so well in San Antonio.
When deadly chlorine gas spilled from a derailed tanker on the outskirts of San Antonio, city and county fire crews rushed in hoping to rescue trapped survivors.

But as panicked residents choked on fumes, the operation stalled for more than six hours as confusion and poor communication stymied the joint effort.

City firefighters had all the best protective gear, but weren't familiar with the terrain. County firefighters knew the terrain but lacked the gear. And neither group could talk to the other by radio.

The June 2004 chlorine spill, which killed four and injured dozens, exposed many of the same vulnerabilities as the 9-11 attacks, when police outside the World Trade Center couldn't use their radios to alert firefighters that the first tower had collapsed.

Now, more than a year after the train wreck and four years after the terror attacks, many of the lessons of 9-11 have yet to be heeded — a point driven home yet again by the sluggish relief effort along the Gulf Coast and in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
Then in Greenville County, South Carolina last week
Residents felt their homes tremble, workers sniffed the acrid air and parents The problem is that there is more money (for equipment and training) than coordination and organization that would result in actual preparedness. searched hurriedly for their children after a fatal chemical plant blast sent heavy black smoke billowing into the sky.

Confusion reigned in the aftermath.

Some parents weren't sure where their kids were headed after they left three Greenville County public schools that were evacuated. Once they found them, some had to wait up to an hour to claim them.

Nearby workers and residents said they received conflicting messages about whether they should leave and where they should go, although a shelter had been set up for them.


"There were a lot of people who were evacuated," [Taylors Fire Chief Bobby]Baker said. "There were a lot of people who were not evacuated, and that's because of the resources."

The mid-morning explosion at Carolina Polymers off Rutherford Road killed a contractor and sent 12 people to Greenville Memorial Hospital, including nine firefighters, authorities said.


Linda Humphrey said a firefighter told her the evacuation wasn't mandatory, but a sheriff's deputy told her 20 minutes later to leave. She wasn't told where to go with the dogs, cats and ferrets she keeps as part of pet rescue mission or how long to stay.

"I watched the news for days about what's going on in New Orleans, and for this to happen in your own backyard," Humphrey said in a reference to the much-criticized response to Hurricane Katrina.

Baker said he didn't know how many residents evacuated, but the area stretched a half-mile from the plant. About 2,000 children fled Taylors and Paris elementary schools and Sevier Middle School at the request of fire officials, said school district spokesman Oby Lyles.
The problem is that there seems to be plenty of money circulating for equipment and training, but there hasn't been anywhere near enough attention paid to the oversight and coordination from state and federal authorities that actually results in preparedness.
Emergency responders are better equipped, better trained and working together more closely than they once did, and Texas has set deadlines for getting the right tools in the hands of those who need them.

And while the spending has been haphazard, the money has opened up new worlds of technology to police, fire and health departments as well as hospitals.

Firefighters now have access to large caches of protective suits with self-contained air tanks.

At a disaster, emergency workers will strategize inside air-conditioned mobile command centers with GIS mapping systems, high-speed Internet and satellite TV. They'll use laptop computers to monitor changes in the weather, and deploy mobile decontamination tents that pop open with a few snaps.

But for all the spending, what have we bought? How much safer are we?

What happened at the train derailment was "a perfect example" of the consequences of inadequate preparation, training and equipment, said Carolyn Merritt, chairwoman of the Chemical Safety Board, the federal agency that investigates industrial chemical accidents.

Merritt said a lack of planning and coordination in responding to emergencies has been more the rule than the exception in U.S. chemical accidents in recent years.
The combination of lax government oversight and lots of free flowing money had predictable results. The San Antonio article describes the situation in Texas, but the problem is hardly limited to the Lone Star state:
In January, a state auditor's report found "significant weaknesses" in how Texas managed its grants for police, fire and emergency workers. The state agency overseeing the program, the Texas Engineering Extension Service, failed to require communities to buy equipment they needed and didn't tie spending to performance or risk, according to the report.

Monitoring was lax. And when auditors visited sites, they discovered that many towns bought equipment that was still stacked in boxes, out of easy reach in the event of a disaster. In many cases, the money wasn't going to the people who needed it most.

At the outset, the grants were set up to push the money out swiftly to the locals, who — theoretically — knew best what they should buy.

"The strategy initially was to arm first responders with what they said they needed to address all threats — not just terrorism but all hazards," said Steve McCraw, the governor's director of homeland security.

What they needed, according to spending records, included equipment that fit everyday uses.

Thousands of dollars were used to buy binoculars, traffic cones and flashlights. Communities spent more than $19 million on vehicles, and since the state didn't limit how many vehicles they could buy, some spent as much as 38 percent of their grants on pickups and vans.

State auditors also found abuses of grant funds, including a Ford Excursion assigned to an executive in Weslaco and $51,000 worth of radios Hemphill County bought from one of its own commissioners, who submitted the only bid.

In at least one instance, the abuses led to criminal charges. The Parker County emergency management coordinator and the county's purchasing agent were indicted on theft charges after a Texas Ranger found all-terrain vehicles bought with homeland security grant funds parked in their garages.
And one also wonders how much attention is being paid to the health and safety of those actually doing the work, the responders:
As time goes on, new problems arise. Chemical testing kits that came with the trailers have expired without replacements. The county also failed to fund upkeep of the equipment, including hazmat suits and air tanks that must be tested periodically.
Some volunteer firefighters who would work inside the hazmat suits, which can get hot enough to overwhelm even the healthiest firefighters, have not received routine physicals. The grants can't be used for physicals, and the county has not yet paid for them.

Some of those who would handle the equipment complain that they lack the training to use it properly. Although city and county hazmat teams have run through a few exercises together, joint training has been limited.
One thing missing from both of these articles is any mention of Local Emergency Planning Committees (LEPCs). EPCRA required states to be divided into emergency planning districts, each of which was supposed to have an LEPC that was required to develop an emergency response plan and provide information about chemicals in the community to citizens. LEPCs were supposed to be composed not just of local government emergency response officials, but also of representatives of industry, the media, hospitals as well as environmental and community groups.

In other words, LEPCs were supposed to be a vehicle for participation of the entire community, not just the "professionals" in planning for emergencies.

Unfortunately, many communities never developed LEPCs and others fell into disuse after a few years of activity. After the renewed interest in emergency preparedness after 9/11, a few LEPCs have become re-energized, although much of their attention has been diverted by "homeland security" concerns to terrorism and away from the more hum-drum, but more common chemical plant releases and train wrecks.

Yes, I know it's unfashionable (or at least it was before Katrina), but while real preparedness for real hazards requires money, it also requires some responsibility, competence and oversight on the state and federal government levels. And that means more than throwing money at local communities because "they know best what the local needs are." It means serious oversight by EPA, by OSHA and by FEMA, as well as a regulatory structure that promotes competence, honesty and agility from Washington DC to all the way down to Columbia, South Carolina and Austin, Texas and then to Greenville County and San Antonio.

We've been warned. Many times.