Chemical Accident Data Can Help Make Communities Safer

June 21, 1999

Today is the deadline for companies to submit “Risk Management Plan” data on accident scenarios to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), as required by the 1990 Clean Air Act. Later this summer, the public will be able to obtain data submitted by tens of thousands of facilities using hazardous chemicals; however, the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) today urged the public, the media, and researchers to immediately request RMP data from nearby facilities and to urge plants to post the data on company websites.

The data, which includes both worst-case and “more likely” accident scenarios, describes how large an area could be affected by a chemical accident, and the danger to nearby schools, hospitals, and residences. Facilities required to submit the data include chemical plants, refineries, gas processing facilities, drinking water plants, and others. Congress decided to require companies to submit RMP data in response to the December 1984 chemical accident at a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, which killed thousands and injured hundreds of thousands. In addition to accident scenarios, RMPs include information on most recent safety inspections, five-year accident histories, prevention strategies undertaken, and emergency response information.

“The public has a right to information about how a chemical accident could affect them or their families,” said Lois Epstein, an EDF engineer. “The public can use these data to engage in dialogues with plant managers about how to reduce or eliminate accident hazards. The law already has had beneficial impacts, with some plants reducing or eliminating their accident hazards in order to avoid reporting.”

Epstein added that, “Plants should design for safety by using safer materials and technologies, while avoiding control systems such as sprinklers and containment, which can fail to protect the public, workers, and property. Reducing process pressures, temperatures, and on-site storage, and using less toxic, less flammable chemicals are the best ways to protect the public.”

Congress and the Clinton Administration still are determining how to release the data to the public, as required by the Clean Air Act. Some in industry and government have argued the data might be used by terrorists; however, the data do not contain information on how to create an accident. Instead, RMP data provide important information on the health and environmental consequences of an accident.

“This law encourages companies to reduce accident hazards, which will make our communities safer,” said EDF legislative director Steve Cochran. “Congress should not delay the public disclosure requirements of the Clean Air Act.”