hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires




Disaster waiting to happen?

N.Y. counties lag in planning for chemical accidents



Contributing writer

When a huge fire broke out last summer at an industrial waste processing plant in Columbia County, firefighters initially tried to quell the blaze with water.

But the firefighters soon had to retreat as a series of explosions rocked the 30,000-square-foot building that was home to TCI of New York, a company that specialized in collecting and recycling PCB-contaminated electrical transformers. 

Water, it turned out, was the wrong substance to use against the fire. The TCI plant contained more than a dozen 55-gallon drums of finely powdered sodium. Sodium is so highly reactive to moisture that it can readily explode on contact with water, producing caustic sodium hydroxide and flammable hydrogen gas. The result was a series of fireball explosions as the TCI plant burned to the ground on the night of Aug. 1.

Local firefighters who responded to the scene didn’t appear to know in advance that the plant contained large quantities of sodium. Although TCI had filed required paperwork electronically with state officials months earlier listing hazardous substances it kept at the facility, sodium wasn’t among the chemicals the company was required to report. The drums of sodium were stored at the plant by another company, and firefighters learned about them only when a plant employee alerted them at the fire scene.

In a report issued last month, the state Office of Fire Control and Prevention concluded that the blaze likely originated in the area of the complex where the drums of sodium were stored – an area where a heating unit had been left on and unattended for several hours before the fire broke out.

Monitoring the hazardous materials at companies like TCI – and preparing for an event like the Aug. 1 fire – was supposed to be the job of a county emergency planning committee. But the committee appears to have been a low priority for county officials in recent years.

Under a federal law passed by Congress in 1986, every municipality in the nation is supposed to have or be a part of a local emergency planning organization that keeps track of potentially hazardous chemicals used by local industries – and prepares for how to respond to emergencies involving these chemicals.

But in several area counties in New York, these emergency-planning organizations have fallen dormant over the years or even disbanded.

At the time of the TCI fire last summer, for example, Columbia County had an emergency planning committee on paper, but the group was no longer functioning.

Lt. Tom Lanphear of the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office was appointed chairman of the county’s emergency planning committee two years ago. But in an interview in August, three weeks after the TCI fire, he said the committee had met only once in the past year and did not have a defined membership. Lanphear also expressed some uncertainty about the panel’s responsibilities.

Columbia County’s situation is not unusual in eastern New York. Emergency planning committees focused on industrial chemicals no longer exist in Saratoga and Washington counties, and a panel in Warren County is relatively inactive. Inquiries about Rensselaer County’s emergency planning committee were referred to Raymond Davis, the county’s hazardous materials coordinator, who didn’t respond to repeated phone messages.

In contrast, at least four local emergency planning organizations appear to be actively focused on preparedness for industrial accidents in southwestern Vermont and Berkshire County, Mass.

Community-based mission

Congress established the mandate for local planning and information on about industrial chemicals when it passed the Emergency Planning and Community Right-To-Know Act of 1986. The law won approval after a series of deadly industrial accidents in the 1980s, including a chemical-plant leak in Bhopal, India, that killed several thousand people and sickened many thousands more.

The law gives each community’s emergency planning committee the task of developing a comprehensive emergency plan to protect the public from chemical accidents. These plans are supposed to:

* identify facilities with hazardous chemicals as well as transportation routes;

* spell out emergency notification and response procedures and evacuation plans;

* provide contacts for facility and community emergency coordinators; and

* describe first-responder personnel, equipment, training and practice and how an emergency plan will be carried out.

These planning committees are responsible for providing citizens and local governments with information about hazardous chemicals and accidental releases in the areas under their jurisdiction.

Every year, industrial plants and other facilities with certain quantities of hazardous chemicals on their premises are required to submit what’s called a “Tier II” report, disclosing these chemicals, to the state emergency response commission, the local emergency planning committee and the local fire department. Industrial plants are also encouraged to share other information relevant to planning for potential accidents.

But since the federal law first took effect more than a generation ago, many local emergency planning committees around the nation have lost momentum or fallen by the wayside. And many local committees, along with state agencies that oversee them, have turned away from their original mandate. Often they’ve allowed preparation for chemical accidents to take a back seat to an “all hazards” approach that encompasses such things as severe weather and terrorism threats.

Active programs in Mass., Vermont

Unlike their counterparts in eastern New York, several emergency planning committees just across the New England border are still able to sustain the interest and attendance of local officials nearly three decades after the federal law was enacted.

Rutland City Fire Chief Robert Schlacter said the monthly meetings of Rutland’s regional planning committee, for example, normally attract 30 to 50 people. Meeting in the evening over pizza and soda makes it easier to get good participation from volunteer emergency responders and local government officials, most of whom wear multiple hats, he said.

Schlacter said his committee also works hard to keep its meetings pertinent and stimulating. The committee organizes each session around a realistic disaster scenario put together by a state police lieutenant and the regional planning commission director. These participatory “tabletop” exercises last about an hour and are followed by a half-hour debriefing. Recent exercises have dealt with such diverse disaster scenarios as a gasoline tanker truck accident and a gunman in a school.

Keith Squire, the chairman of the Bennington County emergency planning committee, said his panel moves its meetings around the county to reach more people. Typically between 20 and 35 people turn out for its sessions. Squire, who also is chairman of the Arlington Select Board, has led the group since its creation more than 25 years ago.

Asked about his motivation, he replied, “Everyone’s got to have a project.”

Over the years, the Bennington County committee has organized a number of emergency preparedness drills. Since tropical storm Irene, Squire said, first responders have been participating in greater numbers. They’re especially eager for the training the committee can provide, he said.

Emergency planning committees also can help first responders to do their jobs more effectively by providing equipment. For example, a few years ago the Rutland committee got funding to equip every volunteer fire department in the county with a laptop computer loaded with software for managing chemical incidents. The computers also give firefighters access to the chemical inventories reported by local industries.

In southern Berkshire County, 12 towns banded together nearly a decade ago to form one of the first regional emergency planning committees in Massachusetts. Doreen Hutchinson, the group’s current chairwoman, said the organization has its roots in the tradition of mutual aid among area fire companies and police agencies.

Each town kicks in $500 a year for a part-time administrator who works out of an office at Fairview Hospital in Great Barrington, where Hutchinson is vice president of operations. The state provides an additional $1,500 annually from U.S. Department of Transportation funds for hazardous materials.

Cross-border contrast

Three of the emergency planning committees contacted in southwestern Vermont and Berkshire County, Mass., meet at least 10 times a year, and the Bennington County committee meets every other month. Most have turned into all-hazards planning groups, while the Central Berkshire committee retains a chemical-hazards focus. A fifth committee, serving the northern Berkshires, did not respond to repeated inquiries for this report.

But across the state line in New York, local emergency planning committees are mostly inactive or defunct.

Washington County Emergency Services Director Bill Cook said his county’s committee died from a lack of “funding and manpower” -- and from the difficulty of “keeping the interest of the outside players,” the businesses with reportable quantities of chemicals.

Cook was promoted to his current position in 2004. The local emergency planning committee “went belly-up two directors before me,” or about 20 years ago, he said.

Cook said he agrees with his predecessors’ view that the committee probably wasn’t needed.

“My sense is it was probably overkill,” he said.

He said preparation for industrial accidents is among the responsibilities of his own office.

“We do planning,” Cook said. “It’s just not community-based planning. We rely on business and industry to do the planning and supply information to local fire chiefs and myself.”

Similarly, Cook’s Saratoga County counterpart, Paul Lent, said his county’s emergency planning committee folded about 15 years ago.

Lent said his office holds fairly regular “working meetings” with some of the county’s larger industrial facilities to discuss emergency preparedness. But because these meetings take place privately on the property of the regulated industries, the discussions aren’t subject to freedom-of-information and open-meetings laws.

In this way and others, the approach to disaster planning taken by some area counties appears contrary to the spirit of the 1986 federal law, which called for local emergency planning committees to includes representatives of 13 different community sectors, including police, firefighters, emergency medical services, industries, community groups and news organizations.

Most local emergency planning officials, as well as some state and EPA officials interviewed for this story, said when asked that the public does have a right to examine the hazardous materials reports filed by local industries.

But in response to a Freedom of Information Law request filed as part of this report, the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services said it could not provide copies of all the Tier II reports for a five-county region of eastern New York unless it was given a specific name and address for each facility whose records were being requested. Except for the very largest facilities, figuring out which industries and institutions might be covered by the reporting requirements would be an exercise in guesswork.

Losing momentum

Despite their relative inactivity, local emergency planning committees in Columbia, Rensselaer and Warren counties each received small federal grants last year to support their efforts, according to the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services. The state agency claims there are 58 local planning committees in New York, of which 39 were deemed sufficiently active to receive the planning grants last year. The grants generally total up to $4,000 per county.

Kristin Devoe, a spokeswoman for the agency, said in an e-mail interview that counties don’t have to maintain emergency planning committees if they don’t have any facilities that use hazardous chemicals in quantities sufficient to meet the thresholds set in the 1986 federal law.

But both Washington and Saratoga counties appear to have a number of such facilities, even though neither has an active planning committee.

Lent, the Saratoga County emergency services director, characterized the Momentive Industries complex, a former General Electric plant in Waterford, as “pretty significant in quantity, size and scope” of the hazardous chemicals it uses. The giant computer-chip research and fabrication company GlobalFoundries in Malta and the Kesselring nuclear lab in West Milton are among other notable sites in the county with hazardous materials.

In Warren County, the local emergency planning committee set up under the 1986 law was merged with the county’s own emergency response and preparedness committee a few years ago. The reconstituted committee only meets four times a year. Amy Drexel, the county’s emergency services coordinator, said officials combined the two groups because “it was pretty much the same people who came to both meetings.”

Even the merged committee appears relatively inactive. The latest meeting minutes on the county's Web site -- from October 2011 -- simply record the absence of anything to report. And none of the prior minutes posted online exceeded a few lines.

Chemical hazards vs. terrorism

The head of the Central Berkshire regional emergency planning committee, Pittsfield Fire Chief Robert Czerwinski, disputes the merit of merging hazardous-chemicals committees into all-hazards groups.

Although in some areas, like emergency communications and evacuation, there’s a lot of overlap with planning for other hazards, Czerwinski said the training to identify and respond appropriately to hazardous chemicals is quite specific.

Czerwinski appears to be in the minority among his peers. Officials at state agencies and two regional offices of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency contacted for this story said they generally support the trend toward all-hazards organizations, which they cast as a more efficient use of government funds and staff time.

In the decade since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the priorities of emergency planners also have changed, particularly in New York.

John Higgins, an EPA Region II staffer who has worked on emergency planning issues since the early 1990s, said simply, “9/11 was a game changer.” As a result, the EPA regional office turned the focus of its emergency planning efforts away from chemical hazards and community right-to-know requirements and instead began figuring out how to coordinate disaster responses with the federal and state homeland security departments.

But Czerwinski cited the transportation and handling of chlorine as just one example of the need for local emergency-planning groups dedicated to hazardous chemicals.

The Chlorine Institute, an industry trade group, warns that an accident involving the chemical could quickly lead to disaster. Chlorine gas is compressed 500-fold when it’s transported as a liquid, and a medium-sized puncture in a 90-ton chlorine tanker could release its entire contents in 2 minutes, spreading a plume over a wide area. The poisonous gas is heavy and stays close to the ground.

In much smaller quantities, chlorine is trucked to virtually every community large enough to have a water treatment plant, and a truck usually carries chlorine for many destinations when it makes deliveries.

“I want to know where there is chlorine in my community,” Czerwinski said. “One cylinder is enough to sicken a whole neighborhood. What is the population nearby? Am I dealing with a [water] system that’s 50 years old, or one that’s newly replaced?”

Even if a community isn’t home to a major industrial facility, many tons of flammable, explosive, corrosive and toxic chemicals travel through the countryside – and densely populated areas – on trains, trucks and barges.

One day Czerwinski said he counted 76 railroad tank cars, each carrying 30,000 gallons of ethanol, traveling on a freight train through Pittsfield. He calculated that four to six times a month, more than 2 million gallons of the highly flammable fuel are shipped from Selkirk, N.Y., across the Hudson River and parts of Rensselaer and Columbia counties, into Berkshire County and onward to eastern Massachusetts. 

Yet New England is the only region in which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requires local emergency planning efforts to encompass transportation routes for hazardous chemicals.

Transportation-related accidents have led to hazardous chemical incidents around the region in recent years. In August 2000, for example, a leak of potentially deadly anhydrous ammonia from a parked railroad tank car forced the evacuation of 1,300 people for a three-day period in the Washington County village of Fort Edward. The chemical release, which resulted from a defective valve cap, sent 60 people to the hospital.

Toothless law?

At a public forum after the TCI fire, Bill Black, Columbia County's head of emergency services, criticized the 1986 law as having no teeth.

“We need a law that gives the county the ability to enforce it,” he said at the time.

Black is not alone in expressing this frustration. Except in states or localities that adopt their own laws regulating hazardous chemicals, only the EPA can compel facilities to comply with the annual reporting requirements of the 1986 law.

Businesses that neglect to file an annual report or don't accurately or completely report their inventories rarely face consequences. EPA Region 1 conducts only 45 inspections a year in all of New England. EPA Region 2, which covers New York, New Jersey and Puerto Rico, does not appear to set a numerical goal.

Both New York and Massachusetts rely on the EPA’s list of about 400 “extremely hazardous substances” to guide their hazardous-materials reporting requirements.

In contrast, Vermont has adopted its own law, which sets much lower thresholds at which companies are required to report hazardous materials. The lower thresholds mean the number of businesses and institutions that must file Tier II reports of their hazardous-chemical inventory is perhaps 10 times greater than the number that otherwise would be covered by federal standards. This puts more facilities on the radar of first responders and emergency planners and gives them more information.

The Rutland-area emergency planning committee, for example, collects information from about 250 facilities, Schlacter said.

By comparison, across the state line in New York, a visit to the Washington County emergency services office revealed only 17 Tier II reports on file for 2011. Many folders for other facilities had reports from previous years, some far back, but no notations indicated whether they were defunct or no longer needed to file reports – or whether anyone had contacted them about their status.

Rediscovering a mission

In Columbia County, Lanphear said the TCI fire served as a wakeup call on the need for better planning and coordination. As a result, he said, the county is working to reinvigorate its emergency-planning committee and make it more proactive.

Although the revamped committee will be an all-hazards organization, Lanphear said the county recognizes the need to focus on chemical hazards. After a meeting in September to get the ball rolling, Lanphear said he was trying to schedule a meeting around the holidays to work on new bylaws. Come spring, he said, the panel will roll out “a large-scale incident” exercise.

Lanphear said one of the points driven home to him at a recent four-day incident command training at West Point was the necessity of having local fire departments be familiar with industrial facilities and their chemical hazards before accidents happen. This is an area where his committee could play a leading role.

Whenever there’s a hazardous chemical release or fire, the local fire chief serves as incident commander. As preparation, there’s no substitute for doing walk-through inspections of facilities, knowing plant layouts and vulnerabilities and having an opportunity to advise facility managers on proper storage.

Lanphear described himself as a jack-of-all-trades, with a job that runs the gamut from being “the computer guy” to serving as assistant chief correction officer at the county jail. Given how thinly he is already spread, he said, the emergency preparedness function could easily be passed on to someone else.

“We’ve been talking about the need to get someone here in a full-time position,” Lanphear said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the size of the TCI of New York plant that was destroyed by fire in August. The building is 30,000 square feet.




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