While the conversation on hazardous chemicals facilities tends to revolve around risks to the general public, nearly 20 million schoolchildren go to schools located in vulnerability zones. Many of these schools lack plans in case of a chemical emergency.
WASHINGTON — One in three U.S. students attends school within the formally designated “vulnerability zone” of facilities involved in the manufacture or storage of large amounts of hazardous chemicals, according to new research.
That would translate into nearly 20 million schoolchildren spending near-daily time within the vicinity of at least one hazardous facility, including refineries, chemical manufacturers and wastewater treatment plants. Further, half of that number attend school near multiple facilities like these. And in 102 counties in 22 states, every single student goes to class within one or more vulnerability zones, most of which are a mile or larger.
“Literally tons of inadequately tested, potentially harmful chemicals and known human toxins are in use in industrial production sites and storage facilities across the country. These stocks of toxic chemicals represent a looming, silent risk in communities nationwide,” a new report from the Center for Effective Government, a Washington watchdog group, states.
“The risk only becomes visible when catastrophes occur … Unfortunately, as the industrial infrastructure of private companies ages, the ratio of health and safety inspectors per worksite declines, and our population centers expand, the risks of chemical catastrophes are increasing.”
Earlier this year, for instance, a chemical foam used to wash coal seeped out of an aging facility and into a West Virginia river, threatening the drinking water supplies of 300,000 people after the contamination was finally discovered. In 2012, toxic smoke escaped from a Chevron refinery during a fire in California, sending some 15,000 people to the hospital.
Perhaps the most important recent rallying point for both lawmakers and civil society on this issue took place last year, when a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, exploded and killed 15 people and injured nearly 200. That blast also demolished three schools, though class was not in session at the time. Indeed, the plant had received a special permit to be sited within 3,000 feet of one of the schools.
That event also prompted President Barack Obama to act. The president issued an executive order that, among other things, mandated the creation of an interagency commission focused on ways to improve safety at chemical facilities. Three federal regulators have since begun processes to tighten their standards and oversight around chemical facilities.
The most central of these, the Environmental Protection Agency, is the one that records large facilities’ vulnerability zones in the first place. And through the end of the month, the agency is taking public comments on potential reforms it could undertake related to its oversight of chemicals facilities.
Little public recognition
As regulators take a new look at chemical safety across the country, advocates are pushing to require companies to switch to less toxic alternatives to some common chemicals, to store those chemicals in smaller amounts, and to start using safer technologies as they become available.
Chlorine, for instance, is one of the most widely used dangerous chemicals in the country, yet the major bleach manufacturer Clorox was able to successfully phase out its use in 2009. Newly tightened regulations could now speed along that and similar processes.
Others, including within the U.S. government, say the EPA needs to broaden its oversight of dangerous chemicals.
“The compound that was involved in the West, Texas, explosion isn’t even on the EPA’s list of covered chemicals,” Daniel Horowitz, managing director of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, the federal agency that investigates chemical accidents, told MintPress News.
“We’ve been pushing for these types of changes for 10 years, so we consider the current discussion around reforms to be tremendously important.”
While there is now some rising concern on the part of regulators and lawmakers about the country’s aging chemicals infrastructure, researchers for the new schools report say public awareness around these issues remains low.
“These findings were pretty shocking for us, and we have been working on this issue for a long time. So it’s very unlikely that this is a very well-known issue,” Sean Moulton, a co-author on the new report and the director of open government policy at the Center for Effective Government, told MintPress.
“We’ve certainly known there’s quite a significant number of facilities putting a large number of people at risk, but that’s always discussed in terms of the danger to the general population. In certain areas there are undoubtedly schools that are fully aware of this issue, but I think that’s the exception rather than the rule.”
Some schools, particularly those situated very near large facilities, do likely have emergency plans in place in case of an explosion or other catastrophe. But in many situations, facilities with very wide vulnerability zones – sometimes 20 miles or more – are located near major urban areas. It’s likely that those schools are not taking this information into account, if they realize the risk at all.
According to the new report, 32 facilities reported vulnerability zones impacting on between a quarter- and a half-million schoolchildren.
“A plant in New Jersey puts almost every student in Manhattan at risk,” Amanda Frank, a co-author on the new report and a policy analyst with the Center for Effective Government, told MintPress. “Inner-city kids probably have no idea that this plant is putting them at risk. And their schools probably don’t have any emergency plan in place.”
Minority schoolchildren in general appear to be particularly at risk. The Environmental Justice and Health Alliance, a national umbrella group, looked at many of the same datasets as the Center for Effective Government, but compared them to broader demographics information. In a report released earlier this year, the alliance found significant racial disparities in who lives closest to such facilities.
Of families living very near chemical facilities, for instance, blacks were 75 percent more represented than in the national population, according to the report. Latinos, too, were found to be 60 percent more represented.
A half-dozen school districts contacted by MintPress for this story either declined to comment or failed to respond. Part of the problem may be that current disclosure requirements don’t make it easy for the public to find this information. The EPA keeps tabs in particular on around 13,000 facilities that report using or warehousing particularly large amounts of chemicals. Yet there remains no centralized way of accessing this information.
While Frank says the report’s authors at the Center for Effective Government were able to obtain some of this data through Freedom of Information Act requests, the rest is even more restricted.
“We had to go collect this data in EPA reading rooms in each separate region, and those rooms are only open at certain times,” she said. “Even then, we could only look at 10 documents per month and couldn’t make any photocopies. So we did a sample of about a quarter of all counties, and even that took a long time and a lot of effort.”
The report includes a county-by-county interactive map of the findings.
Toward safer alternatives
Currently, the issue of student safety around chemical facilities does not seem to be a priority for education groups at the national level. A spokesperson for the National PTA, a public education advocate made up of students, families and school officials, told MintPress that the group isn’t currently active on the issue, though it “does recognize the importance of environmental issues and their impact on the health and welfare of children and families.”
Still, the group’s formal position statement on environmental health and safety does urge its members to advocate for regulations that “protect children from health risks” and “enforce strict compliance with rules that require the safe transportation, storage, management, and disposal of hazardous waste.”
The chemicals industry, on the other hand, is keenly interested in such issues, and maintains one of the largest lobby efforts in Washington.
The American Chemistry Council, the sector’s main trade association, responded immediately to the recent Center for Effective Government report. While it did not dispute any of the report’s findings, it did note that the safety of communities near chemicals facilities is a “top priority” for the group’s members and that “great progress” has been made in recent years to bolster their security.
Some of these efforts, the council reports, have reduced the number of spills, fires and injuries by 55 percent over the past two decades. The group is a member of Obama’s interagency working group on the issue, which the council characterizes as aiming to “improve the effectiveness of safety and security regulations, including the best approach for the promotion of safer alternatives.”
The interagency commission did publish recommendations, following several months of research, earlier this year. Yet the Center for Effective Government’s Moulton says these were vague, indicating merely that a problem exists and that additional actions will eventually be required. Instead, the EPA’s current regulatory process is being seen by advocates as a key opportunity.
“Right now, the main thing the EPA is leaning towards is a requirement for companies to report on available new technologies – whether there is a safer technology and why they are not using it,” he said. “I think they’re hoping for a bit of shaming and, indeed, this information would be able to be used by groups like ours to apply pressure.”
Still, that initiative would likely be a voluntary requirement, and Moulton says the discussion has already moved much further. “We think the EPA should say that if there’s a safer technology that’s affordable, then companies have to make the switch by a certain date,” he said.
The public response period for the EPA’s current request for information ends Oct. 29, after which the agency will need to digest what is likely to be a significant number of comments. Thereafter, the agency will have two options: to move directly to a rulemaking process or simply to give “advanced notice” that it intends to write up such a rule at a later date.
Moulton and others are hoping for the former. Such a process would potentially allow enough time for the agency to finalize new regulations around the safety and security of U.S. chemical facilities before Obama leaves office.