What you don’t know can hurt you

Federal investigators from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board and other agencies are still sifting through the debris in West, Texas to determine why a fire in a fertilizer plant ignited an explosion of ammonium nitrate that killed at least 14 people, injured more than 200, and destroyed two schools, a nursing home, and dozens of homes.

The destruction and loss of life could have been worse. Two anhydrous ammonia tanks at the site survived the explosion. Anhydrous ammonia is a gas used as an industrial refrigerant and fertilizer and if heated, it can explode. If the tanks were punctured, a toxic cloud of gas would have been released, causing burning of the eyes, nose, and throat and, in high enough concentrations, blindness and death.

It’s still not clear if the emergency personnel who rushed in to help knew that large quantities of dangerous chemicals were being stored there. Nor do we know how many first responders or community residents who live near the 8,000 facilities in all 50 states that currently store at least 10,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia are aware of the risks they will face if an accident occurs.

They should know. Anhydrous ammonia in this quantity is considered hazardous enough that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requires that a Risk Management Plan be submitted to the agency and to local emergency staff. The Center for Effective Government, where we work, created an interactive map [www.foreffectivegov.org/anhydrous-ammonia-map] so citizens can see if there are hazards nearby.

The risks are real: between 1996 and 2011, almost 1,000 accidents occurred at 678 of the facilities storing large quantities of anhydrous ammonia, and 133 of those facilities had multiple accidents. This means that nationally, nearly seven percent of the facilities storing anhydrous ammonia reported accidents that resulted in the deaths of 19 people, 1,651 injuries, and caused 63,676 people in the facilities and surrounding communities to be evacuated.

We believe that if information about chemical risks were more fully shared with residents and workers, communities would be better protected. Federal oversight agencies can and should do a better job ensuring that emergency planning information is easily available to first responders and the public, online in an easy-to-understand format. Despite major advances in electronic communications, mobile applications, and social media, emergency planning information remains stuck in file cabinets in government reading rooms.

Greater public engagement in emergency and safety planning is also needed. When emergency plans are being developed, the public needs to be brought in to the process – through public hearings and newspaper and e-mail notices. Anyone living near a facility with large quantities of dangerous chemicals has the right to know about the risks these materials pose and should be fully apprised of evacuation plans in case of an emergency.

But the real solution to reducing the risks facing communities that house these 8,000 facilities is to require a shift to safer chemical alternatives and to demand reductions in the toxins involved in manufacturing processes. A recent report of on-the-job deaths found that 50,000 workers die each year from occupation-related diseases. This is simply unacceptable.

Because there are safer alternatives, private companies will make the change – if the public demands it. For instance, in 2009, Clorox announced plans to switch all facilities that used chlorine gas to safer alternatives. And a movement in Michigan to encourage farmers to use safer alternative chemicals has made use of ammonium nitrate (which was once commonly used in farming in the state) “virtually nonexistent.” These changes can happen, and communities are made much safer as a result.

So go look at our map of risky facilities. Call your local public officials. Make sure your emergency personnel understand the risks associated with particular facilities. Know the evacuation plan for your area. And demand safer chemicals. Let the West, Texas tragedy be an alarm bell. It’s time to get serious about protecting our families and communities. This is America, and we can do better.

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