Disclosure Helps Chemical Security
by Guest Blogger, 4/19/2005
The Wisconsin county of Waukesha has addressed chemical safety and security concerns with reporting and disclosure requirements stronger then those established by the federal government. The county has long used public disclosure of risks and hazards as a means to reduce and manage risks from toxic chemicals. A recent congressional report supports the county's approach concluding that reporting and disclosing chemical inventories and associated hazards promotes risk reduction. In 1986, Congress passed the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA), which requires disclosure of toxic pollution and chemical storage and allows for citizens to participate in local chemical emergency planning. Wisconsin quickly adopted EPCRA as a state law and passed additional stronger right-to-know policies. For example, the federal Clean Air Act requires facilities that use large quantities of hazardous chemicals to inform the public about possible health consequences from a "worst-case" chemical accident. Waukesha County has established a program to calculate and disclose similar information for facilities that fall below the federal reporting thresholds. These policies provide Waukesha emergency management officials and the public with a better understanding of the threats to public safety that hazardous chemical-using facilities pose. The county has made good use of the information. Emergency management officials identify 'special needs' facilities, like schools, daycare centers, and nursing homes, which require specialized evacuation plans to protect against a chemical accident. The increased collection of chemical information and the greater attention to chemical safety has compelled many facilities in Waukesha to eliminate toxic chemicals. According to James Malueg, director of the Waukesha emergency management department, "The benefits of public reporting are that many facilities are maintaining a lower inventory of very toxic chemicals. Some have reduced the amount on-site while others have turned to substituting toxic chemicals with safer ones. This has been a direct result of the [right-to-know] legislation." Malueg and Waukesha county policymakers are backed-up by a Feb. 14 Congressional Research Service report titled ">"Chemical Plant Security." The report explores the issue of making facilities that use hazardous chemicals safer from possible terrorist attacks. Within a balanced presentation of differing viewpoints on the best methods to improve security, the report concludes that public disclosure of chemical risks can make communities safer. Specifically the report states, "reporting and disclosure requirements are meant to facilitate planning, but sometimes they also promote risk reduction. For example, facility managers concerned about community relations sometimes reduce use of particularly toxic or otherwise hazardous materials .... In other cases, the public disclosure requirement may encourage them to change chemical processes and handling in order to reduce the risk of reportable spills." Unfortunately, Waukesha County took down their online database of facilities' chemical inventories and worst case scenarios shortly following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Citizens can still find out about chemical hazards by contacting the Waukesha County Department of Emergency or the state environment department, but online access has fallen victim to secrecy in the name of security.