Updated Database Reveals Significant Chemical Risks Are Distributed Across the Country

by Becky Rubenstrunk, 7/30/2013

The latest data on chemical storage risks shows that over 50 billion pounds of toxic and flammable chemicals are stored at 12,761 facilities nationwide. As the tragic explosions at the West, TX fertilizer plant and a Geismar, LA chemical plant have demonstrated, these facilities pose serious threats to workers and communities throughout the country. The distribution of high-risk chemical facilities – i.e., those that handle significant quantities of 140 dangerous chemicals – are available at a website the Center for Effective Government created and maintains through the Right-to-Know Network (RTKNET.org).

Risky Facilities

Under Section 112(r) of the Clean Air Act, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requires facilities that contain threshold levels of certain toxic and flammable chemicals to submit a Risk Management Plan (RMP) to the EPA every five years (or more frequently if accidents occur). These plans contain an assessment of the potential hazards the chemicals represent if an accident occurs, worst-case scenarios, and the accident history of the facility. In addition, the plans must detail how the facility intends to prevent accidental releases of harmful chemicals and mitigate the damage from chemical releases that do occur.

Since 1999, the number of facilities with enough dangerous chemicals to have to register for the program increased from 2,590 to 12,761 – in other words, there has been an almost 400 percent increase in the number of facilities that report toxic or flammable materials over the last 14 years. During that same time, over 6,200 facilities have "deregistered," meaning they no longer house toxic or flammable substances or that the amounts held fall below the reporting thresholds set by the EPA. Therefore, just over 19,000 facilities have reported to EPA about significant storage of hazardous chemicals at some point in the past 14 years.

The five states with the most high-risk facilities are: Texas (1,935), California (1,457), Illinois (1,265), Iowa (1,165), and Kansas (937).

The Accident Rate at Dangerous Facilities

At facilities that store large quantities of toxic or flammable chemicals, accidents can quickly become major catastrophes for workers and residents of surrounding communities. Since 1999, high-risk chemical plants have reported 1,844 accidents that have resulted in 58 deaths, 17,054 injuries, and over $1.6 billion in property damage. Moreover, almost 263,000 people in surrounding communities had to be evacuated when the accidents occurred.

Although Delaware only has 44 RMP facilities, they have had 24 accidents, which gave it the highest accident rate in the country at 54 percent. These incidents resulted in one death, 32 injuries, and over $9 million in property damage, but no evacuations.

The state with the greatest number of injuries was California. A single accident at the Chevron Richmond Refinery in Richmond, CA, in August 2012 accounted for 14,112 injuries and required 55,000 residents to be evacuated. The explosion was attributed to a fire that resulted from a corroded pipe. California Occupational Safety and Health officials fined the company $963,200 for violations of state safety standards.

An accident in Kansas was the deadliest: a now-deregistered Centralia Fertilizer facility caused 12 deaths in 1998. The second-deadliest accident occurred when seven people were killed in the city of Anacortes, WA, at the Tesoro Anacortes Refinery in April 2010 in an incident attributed to the failure of a 40-year old heat exchanger. The Washington Department of Labor and Industries fined Tesoro $2.39 million after it identified 44 workplace violations and deemed the accident preventable.

Texas had the largest number of accidents – 264, and evacuated the largest number of residents – 123,738. Seven people were killed in six accidents at Texas facilities, and 12 people were injured. Moreover, Texas experienced over $730 million of property damage from these accidents. A single facility, the USA Big Spring Refinery in Big Spring, TX, caused over $385 million of damage and three injuries in 11 accidents.

The Distribution of Toxic Chemicals

Exposure to toxic chemicals can cause a range of serious injuries, from minor irritation to severe tissue burns, cancer, and death, depending on the level and type of exposure. These chemicals are particularly dangerous if they become airborne because they can expose children, the elderly, and families in nearby communities to risk with little warning. Anhydrous ammonia, for example, is used as a nitrogen fertilizer, and exposure to small quantities can cause burning of the eyes, nose, throat, and lungs, while greater exposure can be lethal due to throat swelling or chemical burns to the lungs.

Currently, registered facilities have reported 14.4 billion pounds of 71 different toxic chemicals. The most common toxic chemicals include anhydrous ammonia, chlorine, propylene oxide, vinyl acetate monomer, and acrylonitrile. These types of chemicals must be reported when quantities exceed a chemical-specific threshold. For example, a risk management plan must be submitted if a facility has more than 2,500 pounds of chlorine; ammonia must be reported if the quantity exceeds 10,000 pounds.

Texas has the greatest amount of toxic chemicals in the country, with more than 2.2 billion pounds stored in the almost 2,000 facilities across the state. The most abundant toxic chemical in the state is anhydrous ammonia (589 million pounds), but the most ubiquitous is chlorine (used at 662 facilities).

Illinois, Iowa, North Dakota, and Ohio are the only other states that store over 1 billion pounds of toxic chemicals. The Clarksfield Branch facility in Wakeman, OH, alone houses 1.1 billion pounds of anhydrous ammonia, which is the largest quantity of a toxic chemical in a single facility.

With respect to toxic chemical accidents, Louisiana has had a higher quantity of toxic chemicals (383,032 pounds) involved in accidents than any other state. The most common toxic chemicals in the state include anhydrous ammonia, chlorine, acrylonitrile, chloroform, and ethylene oxide, which are used in a range of commercial and industrial processes and pose a variety of health concerns.

The Distribution of Flammable Chemicals

According to the latest data, there are currently 42.2 billion pounds of flammable chemicals in registered facilities across the country. In addition to being explosive, many flammable chemicals pose serious inhalation and asphyxiation risks because they are gasses. Propane, for example, displaces oxygen. Low levels of inhalation exposure can cause weakness and heavy breathing, while high levels of oxygen displacement can cause permanent organ damage and death. With over 9 billion pounds nationwide, propane is the second most common flammable chemical at registered facilities, second only to flammable mixtures.

Texas facilities reported the greatest quantity of flammable chemicals: over 13 billion pounds. The state has had accidents involving 7.9 million pounds of chemicals, which include butane, ethane, propane, ethylene, and other flammable mixtures, exposure to which can cause a variety of ailments, from frostbite to suffocation and death. A facility located in Sour Lake, TX, stores just under 2 billion pounds of flammables, the greatest quantity in a single facility. The flammable mixture on-site is composed of propylene, propane, isobutane, butane, butene, and isopentane.

Arizona, California, Illinois, Kansas Louisiana, Michigan, and Mississippi are the only other states that report more than 1 billion pounds of flammable chemicals. Over the past 14 years, 479 accidents occurred at the 5,308 facilities in these states.

Though all states do report some level of flammable chemicals, Alaska, Alabama, the District of Columbia, Florida, Idaho, Maine, Massachusetts, Montana, New Hampshire, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Virginia have not had any accidents associated with them.

Conclusion: The Public Needs to Understand Nearby Risks

The American people have a right to know about potentially dangerous chemical facilities that are operating near their homes, schools, and businesses. Access to this information is crucial for successful emergency planning and response, and it helps citizens and public interest organizations advocate for greater protections and safer chemical alternatives at the plants in their communities. To that end, the Center for Effective Government (then known as OMB Watch) created the Right-to-Know Network (RTK NET) in 1989.

The Center has recently updated information on high-risk facilities and others on the site, and we have published a new set of easy-to-use interactive maps of toxic and flammable chemical facilities and the facilities that had accidents. The updated data provide the public with the most current information (through June 2013) on chemical risks throughout the United States.

Image by flickr user The Bay Area's News Station, used under a Creative Commons license