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By Sam Pearson
The call to police came in on a winter night in 2017 in McIntosh, an Alabama town with fewer than 300 people: Chlorine gas was leaking at one of the town’s chemical plants.
Workers inside the Olin Corp. chlorine plant had been attaching hoses to rail cars, preparing to load them with chlorine, according to an incident report. Around 7 p.m. on Feb. 15, monitors alerted employees to leaking chlorine, which can cause coughing, blurred vision, difficulty breathing, and nausea if inhaled, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Twenty-five minutes later, alarms at the fence line went off, showing trace amounts of the substance. An hour later, plant operators called 911.
Confusion arose as officers arrived at the Olin plant, Mike Ready, the town’s police chief, told Bloomberg Environment. An emergency dispatcher told the officers to close the road, but they weren’t able to get more specific information right away from the company on the nature of the chemical release. The company later determined it released 738 pounds of chlorine that night, the incident report said.
The challenge that McIntosh officers faced isn’t unique. Local agencies countrywide have grappled with how to get the information they need before things go wrong and in the midst of an emergency response.
Pending federal regulations issued during the Obama administration would have expanded information sharing and planning requirements for major facilities, but the Trump administration has paused the initiative. What happens next has implications for the workers who will have to manage these types of incidents in the future.
While most chemical plants don’t experience major accidents, the consequences can be significant when they do occur.
The EPA found that between 2007 and 2017, plants regulated by the agency’s facility security program saw 1,517 reportable accidents that killed 59 people and sent more than 17,000 others to seek medical treatment.
One of the McIntosh officers, Lt. Charles Koger, later told a local television station that responding to the chlorine leak left him with a scratchy cough that lasted a week. His boss said the officers were unprepared.
“The plant dropped the ball,” Ready said of what happened in his town, “and it’s lucky somebody didn’t get injured or killed over it. Chlorine’s no joke.”
The incident in McIntosh is typical of what can happen to first responders nationwide.
First responders also were at risk in a high-profile response at an Arkema Inc. chemical facility in Crosby, Texas, in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in August 2017. Workers lost control of a volatile class of substances known as reactive chemicals when refrigeration units failed amid heavy flooding.
Like McIntosh, Harris County Sheriff’s deputies were instructed to close a major road, U.S. Highway 90, near the plant. They waited for days as Arkema’s chemicals overheated and broke down.
The local fire department established a 1.5-mile perimeter, and sheriff’s deputies later took over keeping watch. But the company never told them what precautions to take, just that they should maintain the perimeter, Misty Hataway-Cone, an attorney at Spurlock & Associates PC in Humble, Texas, told Bloomberg Environment.
She is representing 14 emergency response workers in a lawsuit against Arkema in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, which is scheduled for trial in March 2020.
Law enforcement officers believed the substances were harmless and when the chemicals exploded, no one from Arkema told them what was going on, according to Hataway-Cone.
“These officers were never, ever warned of what chemicals were going to be released,” she said. Nor were they informed of exposure information, precautions to take, or what to do if they saw a chemical cloud, which led to first responders falling ill in the street and needing medical attention, she said.
The U.S. Chemical Safety Board, which is investigating the root cause of Arkema’s chemical release, is also examining what implications the events have for emergency preparedness and response efforts. The CSB is a nonregulatory agency and doesn’t issue citations or fines.
The board lists inadequate emergency responses on its drivers of critical chemical safety change program, a list of what the board thinks are the five most important safety improvements. The agency has flagged flawed emergency response efforts in 14 of its completed investigations. A board spokeswoman said the agency can’t discuss the Arkema probe until it is complete.
While police unions haven’t been especially involved with emergency response regulations at the federal level, firefighting organizations have rallied around the issue.
In a letter to Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt in 2017, Harold Schaitberger, general president of the International Association of Firefighters, a Washington-based labor union, warned against delaying Obama administration safety regulations.
“Further delay would potentially endanger not only the public, but the lives of fire fighters responding to incidents at chemical facilities,” Schaitberger wrote.
The regulations came in response to a high-profile fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas, in 2013 that killed 12 firefighters when they entered the burning plant. But the EPA was concerned about lower-profile mishaps throughout the U.S., too.
Despite Schaitberger’s pleas to keep the chemical safety rule in place, the EPA delayed the regulation to Feb. 19, 2019. An agency spokesman didn’t respond to a request for comment from Bloomberg Environment on the EPA’s views of risks to first responders.
“It seems that what we’ve been saying pretty much falls on deaf ears,” Shannon Meissner, director of governmental affairs for the International Association of Firefighters, told Bloomberg Environment.
The purpose of the regulation seems like a no-brainer, Meissner said.
“You’re not going to perform anywhere near as well on the day of the accident unless you practice,” she said. “That’s true for our members, but also, even more so, for the people at these facilities.”
The International Association of Fire Chiefs, which represents leaders of fire agencies, doesn’t have a position on the EPA’s regulation, Jim Philipps, a spokesman for the Virginia-based group, told Bloomberg Environment.
During the Obama administration, the EPA tried to set new requirements for large chemical facilities to coordinate with local responders to avoid mishaps and miscommunication.
But with federal action paused, state programs in Washington and California are addressing the issue at oil refineries, but their actions don’t extend to other industrial facilities.
Arkema disputes the allegations in the first responders’ lawsuit, and Olin said they are already doing at least some of the actions called for in the federal regulation, as did local officials in some areas where major industrial accidents have occurred.
Olin said in a statement it has “a robust risk management program integrated into our daily operations.” The company said it regularly coordinates with state and local agencies, including those in McIntosh, on preparedness drills.
Olin also provided respirators to the McIntosh Police Department and donated gas monitors capable of detecting chlorine to the local fire department, as part of a settlement agreement with the Alabama Department of Environmental Management.
Arkema worked with local responders “for years” on training exercises and shared information about the plant, Janet Smith, the company’s director of communications and crisis preparedness, said in an email to Bloomberg Environment.
Responders can prepare by ensuring planning and communication are up to date, even if they work in a small community, Ted Graf, chief of the Atchison Fire Department in Kansas, told Bloomberg Environment. Graf was involved in a response to a toxic cloud of chlorine gas and other compounds that enveloped the city on Oct. 21, 2016.
Graf’s comments were echoed by Richard Curtis, chief of the Anacortes Fire Department in Washington state. Anacortes is home to two oil refineries that saw major explosions in 1998 and 2010, killing a combined 13 workers.
These grim reminders have brought advancements such as a Reverse 911 notification system and a single frequency for radio communications, Curtis told Bloomberg Environment.
More changes could be afoot if Washington regulators finalize regulatory changes for oil refineries that echo a stepped-up safety program California officials put in place last year.
Those changes go beyond what the Obama administration EPA considered. They would require companies to use the safest possible options to evaluate refinery processes on an ongoing basis to eliminate hazards and to involve workers in safety decisions, among other things.
Atchison responders have increased training with the county’s Department of Emergency Management, which was a recommendation the U.S. Chemical Safety Board issued when it investigated the chemical release, Graf said.
The Washington city’s refineries have in-house firefighters on-site, but if a major incident happens again, the six-person municipal force will have to close roads and provide medical assistance, Curtis said. Oil companies Andeavor and Royal Dutch Shell Plc pitch in, through regular meetings with city officials and paid training for its firefighters, Curtis said.
Firefighters in Atchison have been canvassing the region, talking to other departments about their tumultuous day.
“Don’t say it can’t ever happen here,” Graf said. “Because things have happened here.”
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