By Sam Pearson
Industry and health advocacy organizations are watching closely as the EPA adds new tools so that, during emergencies, local authorities and first responders can access chemical trade secrets previously kept in-house.
Their concerns are twofold, however. It could take too long for company data to reach authorities that need it during a factory accident or fire, and the files might not be kept secure when they arrive.
“I think it’s really incumbent upon EPA to sort of make this thing work,” Robert Sussman, a former EPA deputy administrator who is now a counsel for the advocacy group Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families in Washington, told Bloomberg Environment May 29.
The agency is acting after Congress amended the nation’s chemical oversight law, the Toxic Substances Control Act, in 2016. The changes came after reports that the identities of more than 17,000 chemicals were withheld as confidential business information, preventing regulators from sharing data with firefighters and emergency medical technicians facing spills and accidents.
The information could help communities better understand how to fight chemical fires, or in what manner a little-known substance spilled in a river is likely to harm the public.
Now companies, health organizations, and the Environmental Protection Agency are trying to figure out how to provide this access without harming businesses. The issue is “an ongoing topic in our industry,” Lisa Goldstone, a spokeswoman for chemical company Lanxess Corp. in Pittsburgh, said in an email to Bloomberg Environment.
But both health organizations and groups representing major chemical companies said the EPA’s draft guidance released in March is flawed.
The procedures could lead to local authorities calling federal offices after business hours during emergencies, or force them to send other requests by mail, where they may not receive a prompt response.
Meanwhile, industry organizations want tough requirements for authorities to protect the information, because disclosing sensitive data could help a company’s competitors.
The information sharing is distinct from an Obama administration regulation—delayed by EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and under challenge in court—that would have required chemical companies to send more information on facility safety plans to local authorities.
In the draft guidance, the EPA sets procedures for how local authorities would obtain chemical information from companies during a crisis and for longer-term inquiries.
For nonemergencies, authorities would have to write to an EPA office that manages the information. In emergencies, they could call an existing EPA hotline or the director of information management at the division with oversight of the chemicals program.
But neither of these options is available outside regular business hours, when the emergencies can occur.
The setup is an issue because local responders will be less likely to use the information if accessing it is slow or complicated, Ken Zarker, an environmental manager at the Washington State Department of Ecology in Lacey, told Bloomberg Environment.
Companies are concerned about the limited hours of the EPA office that would receive the calls, Christina Franz, senior director of regulatory and technical affairs at the American Chemistry Council in Washington, told Bloomberg Environment. Constrained availability could delay access to the information. The trade group represents more than 150 major chemical producers, including BASF SE, Chevron Phillips Chemical Co. LLC, and DowDuPont Inc.
Advocacy organizations also have questions. In public comments filed April 16 with the EPA, Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families; Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization; Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments; and Alaska Community Action on Toxics wrote that the agency must make employees reachable so that requests don’t “fall into a black hole and languish without response for weeks or even months.”
The American Chemistry Council has floated the idea of sending local authorities to its in-house emergency service, CHEMTREC, a safety hotline for chemical companies in operation since 1971, and is hoping to conduct a tour of the program’s offices in Fairfax, Va., for EPA employees, Franz said.
Others said using existing poison control hotlines or working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention could solve the communications problem.
Integrating CHEMTREC into the program may not be able to provide sufficiently advanced safety information on chemicals, unless the program is changed, according to Sussman.
The EPA said in a statement to Bloomberg Environment that it will finish the guidance by June 22. The final guidance will address companies’ concerns, the EPA said.
Completion of the system will be welcome news for officials such as Ken Jock, environment director at the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe in Akwesasne, N.Y.
The tribe, which is close to the Saint Lawrence Seaway, an Alcoa Corp. aluminum smelter, and a shuttered General Motors Co. parts factory that is now a Superfund site, hopes to be able to use chemical data to protect against environmental threats.
“We realize that accidents do occur,” Jock told Bloomberg Environment. “Rather than trying to cover up something, being able to take action to remedy or to mitigate it is going to go a long way towards protecting the community, and also improve relations between industry and the community.”
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