By Carey Gillam
Amid fears about the toxic chemicals released in the East Palestine train derailment, public officials have clamored to reassure community members that the resulting contaminated air, water and soil is being cleaned up, and their tiny Ohio town made safe.
In a recent press conference, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine lamented the toll taken on the residents there, saying “no other community should have to go through this.”
But an analysis of a combination of data collected by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and by nonprofit groups that track chemical accidents in the US shows that accidental releases – be they through train derailments, truck crashes, pipeline ruptures or industrial plant leaks and spills – are happening regularly across the country. One data set shows incidents occurring, on average, every two days.
“These kinds of hidden disasters happen far too frequently,” said Mathy Stanislaus, who served as assistant administrator of the EPA’s Office of Land and Emergency Management during the Obama administration. Stanislaus led programs focused on the cleanup of contaminated hazardous waste sites, chemical plant safety, oil spill prevention, and emergency response.
In the first seven weeks of 2023 alone, there were more than 30 incidents recorded by the Coalition to Prevent Chemical Disasters, roughly one every day and a half. Last year, the coalition recorded 188, up from 177 in 2021. The group has tallied more than 470 incidents since it started counting in April 2020.
The incidents logged by the coalition range widely in severity but each involves the accidental release of chemicals that pose potential threats to human and environmental health.
In September, nine people were hospitalized and 300 evacuated in California after a spill of caustic materials at a recycling facility. In October, officials ordered residents to shelter in place after an explosion and fire at a petrochemical plant in Louisiana.
In November, more than 1,100 gallons of firefighting foam containing toxic chemicals spilled out of a US Navy storage facility in Hawaii where a prior fuel leak had already contaminated drinking water and made some people ill.
Among multiple incidents in December, an explosion at a biodiesel plant in Iowa injured 10 people and forced the evacuation of many others, and a large pipeline ruptured in rural northern Kansas, smothering the surrounding land and waterways in 588,000 gallons of diluted bitumen crude oil. Hundreds of workers are still trying to clean up the pipeline mess at a cost pegged around $488 million.
The precise total number of hazardous chemical incidents over the last decade is hard to determine because the US has multiple agencies involved in response. But the EPA told The New Lede that over the past 10 years, the agency has “performed an average of 235 emergency response actions per year, including responses to discharges of hazardous chemicals or oil.” The agency said it employs roughly 250 people devoted to the EPA’s emergency response and removal program.
Living in “daily fear”
The coalition has counted 10 rail-related chemical events over the last 2-1/2 years, including the derailment in East Palestine, where dozens of cars on a Norfolk Southern train derailed on Feb. 3, contaminating the community of 4,700 people with toxic vinyl chloride.
The vast majority of incidents, however, occur at the thousands of facilities around the country where dangerous chemicals are used and stored.
“What happened in East Palestine, this is a regular occurrence for communities living adjacent to chemical plants,” said Stanislaus. “They live in daily fear of an accident.”
In all, roughly 200 million people are at regular risk, with many of them people of color and disadvantaged communities, he said.
There are close to 12,000 facilities across the nation that have on site “extremely hazardous chemicals in amounts that could harm people, the environment, or property if accidentally released,” according to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report issued last year. These facilities include petroleum refineries, chemical manufacturers, cold storage facilities, fertilizer plants, and water and wastewater treatment plants, among others.
EPA data shows more than 1,650 accidents at these facilities in a 10-year span between 2004 and 2013, roughly 160 per year. More than 775 were reported from 2014 through 2020. Additionally, looking at incidents between 2016 and 2020, the EPA said it found accident-response evacuations impacted more than 56,000 people and 47,000 people were advised to “shelter-in-place.”
Accident rates are particularly high for petroleum and coal manufacturing and chemical manufacturing facilities, according to the EPA.
Chemical industry advocates maintain that accident incidents at these facilities have declined over time, while watchdog groups say that is not true; they say delays in reporting incidents leads to incomplete data and gives a false sense of improvement. When complete incident reporting data is available, there is no statistically significant reduction in the number of incidents, they say.
The EPA says that by several measurements, accidents are growing worse: evacuations, sheltering, and the average annual rate of people seeking medical treatment stemming from chemical accidents are on the rise, according to the EPA. Total annual costs are approximately $477 million, including costs related to injuries and deaths.
“Accidental releases remain a significant concern,” the EPA said.
In August, the EPA proposed several changes to the Risk Management Program (RMP) regulations that apply to the sites dealing with hazardous chemicals. The rule changes reflect the recognition by EPA that many chemical facilities are located in areas that are “susceptible to natural hazards from climate change,” including power outages, flooding, hurricanes and other weather events, the agency said in a letter to the GAO.
The proposed changes include enhanced emergency preparedness, increased public access to information about hazardous chemicals risks communities face, and new accident prevention requirements.
The US Chamber of Commerce has pushed back on stronger regulations, arguing that most facilities operate safely, accidents are declining, and that the facilities impacted by any rule changes are supplying “essential products and services that help drive our economy and provide jobs in our communities.” Opponents to strengthening parts of the RMP include the American Chemistry Council, American Forest & Paper Association, American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, and the American Petroleum Institute.
The changes are “unnecessary” and will not improve safety, according to the American Chemistry Council.
Many worker and community advocates say the proposed rule changes don’t go far enough, however.
The International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace & Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW), which represents roughly a million laborers, said in a letter to EPA that accidents are not truly trending lower and the new rules must ensure hazard reduction and give workers more participation in prevention and response efforts.
Sen. Cory Booker and US Rep. Nanette Barragan – along with 47 other lawmakers – also have called on the EPA to strengthen regulations to protect communities from hazardous chemical accidents.
“The East Palestine train derailment is an environmental disaster that requires full accountability and urgency from the federal government,” Barragan said in a statement. “We need that same urgency to focus on the prevention of these chemical disasters from occurring in the first place.”
“We’re going to be ready”
For Eboni Cochran, a mother and volunteer community activist in Louisville, Kentucky, faith in the federal government is hard to come by. Cochran lives with her husband and 16-year-old son near an industrial zone along the Ohio River that locals call “Rubbertown.” The area is home to a cluster of chemical manufacturing facilities, and curious odors and concerns about toxic exposures permeate the neighborhoods near the plants.
Cochran herself has lodged complaints with local officials with her concerns about chemical contaminants in the air. The East Palestine derailment – though roughly 400 miles north of Louisville – sparked fresh fears about what might be wafting in on the air or contaminating the area’s drinking water, she said.
Cochran and her family keep what she calls “get-out-of-dodge” backpacks at the ready in case of a chemical accident. They stock the packs with two changes of clothes, protective eyewear, first aid kits and other items they think they may need if forced to flee their home.
The organization she works with, Rubbertown Emergency ACTion (REACT), wants to see continuous air monitoring near the plants, regular evacuation drills, and other measures to better prepare people in event of an accidental chemical release. But it’s been difficult to get the voices of locals heard, according to Cochran.
“Decision-makers are not bringing impacted communities to the table,” she said.
In the meantime, REACT is trying to empower locals to be prepared to protect themselves if the worst happens. Providing emergency evacuation backpacks to people near plants is one small step.
“Even in small doses certain toxic chemicals can be dangerous. They can lead to long term chronic illness, they can lead to acute illness, Cochran said. “If there is a big explosion, we’re going to be ready.”
(Featured image is of aftermath of East Palestine, Ohio Feb. 3 derailment. Source: EPA.)
(A version of this story is co-published by The Guardian.)