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Maya Nye: Would this have happened with a Hazardous Chemical Release Prevention Program in place?

In the midst of this water emergency, many people want to know what we can do to prevent incidents like these from reoccurring. Many ideas come to my mind; none so much as massive chemical safety reform.

For the third time in five years, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board is headed to the Kanawha Valley for an investigation. Nearing the fourth anniversary of DuPont's fatal phosgene release, I can't help but wonder, would this have happened had the Hazardous Chemical Release Prevention Program (HCRPP) been implemented as recommended to West Virginia officials by the CSB and others not once, not twice, not three, but four times?

The answer is: Maybe. But once again, its significance resurfaces in the light of this new disaster.

The Hazardous Chemical Release Prevention Program would help prevent the release of hazardous chemicals and improve the way we respond to these events by performing annual third-party safety audits involving public health officials and other stakeholders in chemical safety. The HCRPP is modeled after the Contra Costa County, California Industrial Safety Ordinance (ISO). In California, it has minimized the severity of chemical incidents greatly. So why haven't we implemented it?

In June 2009, I recommended to the Legislature that we needed a bill modeling the Contra Costa County ISO when no major steps were taken to ensure public safety after the fatal 2008 Bayer CropScience explosion. The bill died in a study resolution.

The second time a program like this was recommended was in January 2011 in the CSB's final report on the Bayer CropScience explosion in Institute that killed two workers. In the year between my recommendation and theirs, another worker died, this time at the DuPont facility during a January 2010 phosgene release.

The CSB investigation on this incident prompted the third recommendation.

The fourth recommendation came directly from Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board in a Charleston Gazette opinion piece after the National Academy of Science released its report investigating the use of inherently safer technology and methyl isocyanate (MIC) storage at the Institute plant. What do you think the CSB is going to recommend this time?

The problem is that chemical companies don't want more layers of accountability. That's clear by the amount of money spent on chemical industry lobbying every year. Also, it costs money. Officials seem hesitant to ask chemical industries in the valley to fund the program, which is how the Contra Costa County California ISO is funded. Perhaps, during our fifth request, we need to ask state and federal government to pitch in funds for this preemptive program rather than spending their resources responding to water emergencies that could have been prevented in the first place.

So why did I say that this incident might have occurred even if the Hazardous Chemical Release Prevention Program had already been implemented? Because, like the program after which it is modeled, it probably would have only reviewed facilities mandated to submit an EPA risk management plan, which includes facilities using extremely hazardous substances, places such as Dow, Bayer and DuPont. Freedom Industries Etowah River Terminal didn't have to submit a risk management plan because this chemical is not considered an extremely hazardous substance. Instead, the chemical is regulated under the Toxic Substances Control Act, a law that allows tens of thousands of chemicals to be placed on the market without fully knowing their effects. (An important note here is that what constitutes "extremely hazardous substance" seems to be an ever evolving list of chemicals guided more by the national chemical catastrophe of the month rather than deeper systematic and long-term analysis.)

At least with facilities required to submit risk management plans, companies must identify and define what would happen in a worst-case scenario. While the water emergency is not quite a worst-case scenario yet, the kind of chemical safety analysis a risk management plan provides would have better systematized how we understand the dangers present at facilities like Freedom Industries Etowah River Terminal.

The flexibility in the CSB recommendation gives the director of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department the authority to define the characteristics of chemical facilities that would be covered by the new program. This seems like the perfect time to include facilities like Freedom Industries Etowah River Terminal in its purview, and maybe define some other characteristics as well.

Implementing the Hazardous Chemical Release Prevention Program is only one thing we can do to help prevent such future disasters in the Chemical Valley. However, chemical disasters will continue to occur as long as toxic chemicals are produced. The dangers will remain present until we, the people, hold the government and industry accountable for better chemical safety standards. We need to ensure that chemicals are effectively tested for safety before being introduced to the public and prior to manufacture, storage, and application.

What if we restructured the way we think about jobs and put people in the valley back to work figuring out new, better and healthier ways of doing things that doesn't require the use of such toxic chemicals? Regardless of how we do it, let's not wait for another disaster like this to occur before we put measures in place to prevent them from occurring in the first place.

Nye is the president of People Concerned About Chemical Safety, a Kanawha Valley-based organization dedicated to promoting international human rights pertaining to chemical safety through education and advocacy.


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