Shockingly, Americans Don’t Want Chemical Disasters

October 8, 2015 | 10:20 am
Gretchen Goldman
Former Contributor

Today, a new public poll was released showing Americans’ widespread support for chemical safety reform. The headline might not seem so remarkable but the data show an impressive level of support across demographics. Let’s dig in, shall we?

The poll was sponsored by the Union of Concerned Scientists, along with the BlueGreen Alliance, Center for Effective Government, Communications Workers of America, Greenpeace, and United Steelworkers, and conducted by Lake Research Partners. The poll surveyed 1,009 adults, including 794 likely 2016 voters and asked about chemical safety issues.

Across demographics, the majority of likely voters polled favored requiring chemical facilities to use safer chemicals and processes in order to protect communities.

Across demographics, the majority of likely voters polled favored requiring chemical facilities to use safer chemicals and processes in order to protect communities.

The people have spoken and they want better chemical policies

The poll found that 79 percent of likely voters favor requiring chemical facilities to use safer chemicals and processes when they were effective, available, and affordable. And this finding was similar across demographics, with a majority in support across political parties, racial identity, education level, and age.

In addition, the poll found that by and large people reject the notion that stronger policies on chemical safety kill jobs, an argument often used by opponents of stronger protections against chemical disasters.  Only 16 percent of likely voters thought such protections should not be put in place because of job impacts, with nearly three-quarters of those polled favoring setting stronger safety standards to protect Americans.

The toll of chemical disasters

But it shouldn’t be surprising that these issues would be so unifying. Chemical disasters occur everywhere and can affect many across the country. The explosion of a fertilizer plant is West, Texas last year is a recent high-profile example of the devastating impact these events can have. The blast—which was enabled because the plant was storing unsafe levels of ammonium nitrate on site—killed 15 people and destroyed or damaged 150 buildings.

However, it is important to remember that for every West, Texas, there are dozens of chemical explosions that don’t get the same kind of headlines. Yearly, there are about 30,000 documented accidents at U.S. chemical facilities, resulting in more than 1,000 deaths per year. Recent studies have shown that 134 million Americans live in the vicinity of 3,400 facilities that use or store hazardous chemicals. And although these risks are wide reaching, the families who live in the most vulnerable zones are disproportionately poor, African-American, or Latino.

Yet, members of the public and local public safety officials often have little information about the chemicals stored and used in their communities or about the associated risks for explosion, spills, and accidental or intentional release of chemicals. Despite laws intended to promote sharing of information about local chemical hazards, there is often ineffective communication of these hazards to the public and local public safety officials. This failure to communicate persists and is potentially most tragic when community emergency responders respond to chemical fires and explosions at facilities.

The EPA Risk Management Plan: A need for better public access

The EPA is currently updating its Risk Management Plan (RMP), the agency’s primary mechanism for managing chemical disaster risks.  Under the current RMP, companies report information about the worse-case scenario risks at their facilities and what they are doing to mitigate those risks.  This information is technically public but no one would say it’s easy to get. One must schedule in advance an appointment at an EPA or Department of Justice reading room—of which some states don’t have any.  Once there, you are allowed to view information for ten facilities only (though more if you are a local resident) and you cannot take a photo or type up the information. Instead, you must manually copy the information with pen and paper. Finally, you are able to follow this procedure only once per month.

As my colleague Andrew Rosenberg has said in a public comment to the EPA, the bottom line is that this process is neither convenient nor easy for large parts of the population who don’t have the time, patience, or geographic proximity to manage such a process. The EPA is currently developing a revised draft rule on the RMP and I hope they consider making the valuable information it contains more accessible to communities.

The bottom line: We need chemical safety reform

So what does the poll suggest?  First and foremost, it suggests we need better chemical policies in this country.  We need greater accountability for the companies responsible for such disasters. And we need more oversight from regulators to ensure that companies aren’t operating under risky conditions.  Local communities deserve access to information about what chemicals are in their area and what the risks are.  Emergency personnel and medical professionals also need access to this information, to ensure that people are kept safe or treated appropriately with any exposure.