TESTIMONY OF TIMOTHY FIELDS, JR.
February 10, 1999
TESTIMONY OF TIMOTHY FIELDS, JR.,
ACTING ASSISTANT ADMINISTRATOR FOR
SOLID WASTE AND EMERGENCY RESPONSE
U.S. ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY
SUBCOMMITTEE ON HEALTH AND ENVIRONMENT, AND
SUBCOMMITTEE ON OVERSIGHT AND INVESTIGATIONS
COMMITTEE ON COMMERCE
U.S. HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES
February 10, 1999
Mr. Chairman, and Members of the subcommittees, I am Tim Fields, Acting Assistant Administrator in the Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. My office has primary responsibility for the Risk Management Program under Section 112(r) of the Clean Air Act (CAA) and federal implementation of several sections of the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act. I also am responsible for the Agency's counter terrorism program and the associated coordination with other federal partners, State and local governments, and the private sector.
I am pleased to have this opportunity to present information about the importance of chemical safety, community right to know, and our plan to balance these benefits with the continuing challenge of protecting our nation's security.
In 1986, Congress enacted the first community right-to-know law that gave citizens information to enable them to make decisions about chemical hazards in their community. This law requires States to establish State Emergency Response Commissions (SERCs) that, in turn, appoint Local Emergency Planning Committees (LEPCs) to plan for community responses to chemical accidents. The law also requires facilities to report to the public, through the LEPC, their inventories of hazardous chemicals and to participate in local emergency preparedness efforts.
There are approximately 3,000 LEPCs throughout the country that act as an ongoing forum for discussion and focus for action. Once citizens know more about chemical hazards in their communities, the better equipped they are to work with their local government to make decisions and take actions that will better protect their families and their neighbors from unacceptable risks.
Information Drives Action
As a result of chemical information being in public hands, we also have seen a change in the way some facilities do business.
Public release of TRI data spurred facilities to voluntarily reduce their emissions. For example, Occidental Chemical in Houston installed a filtration system that reduced hazardous waste by 58 percent, while in Dominguez, California, Rhone-Poulenc cut 75 percent of the sulfuric acid wastewater going to the city treatment plant. Since the public release of the first round of Toxic Release Inventories (TRI), reported toxic chemical emissions have dropped by 50 percent.
The Emergency Planning and Community Right-To-Know Act enhanced community planning and provided significant new information on chemical handling and releases to the public. Because of chemical information being available to the public, awareness of the potential danger from accidental releases of hazardous chemicals has grown in communities across the country and intensified further as a result of several major accidents that resulted in the deaths of workers at plants, hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage, and thousands of residents evacuated from their homes. These accidents indicated a need for better programs to prevent chemical releases.
In 1994, an explosion at a fertilizer production plant near Sioux City, Iowa, killed four employees and injured 18 others. The blast triggered an anhydrous ammonia release into the air, forcing the evacuation of nearly 2,500 residents. An EPA investigation found that the accident was caused by a lack of safe operating procedures and safety practices. Interviews with employees indicated that they were not aware of many of the hazards of ammonium nitrate, a chemical used in the production of fertilizer, showing the continuing need for an informed dialogue for safety.
Risk Management Program
Through passage of Section 112(r) of the CAA in 1990, Congress recognized the need for facilities, such as the one in Iowa, to develop or improve their planning and accident prevention programs in order to prevent accidents. The law also recognized that citizens have a right to know about the hazards these facilities present.
Under the chemical accident provisions of 112(r), facilities must conduct hazard assessments, establish accident prevention programs, and bolster emergency response planning. These requirements are implemented by EPA's Risk Management Program regulations and are aimed at reducing the likelihood and severity of chemical releases. Facilities that are covered under these regulations must submit a Risk Management Plan or RMP. Under the law, these plans, except for Confidential Business Information, must be available to the public, the federal Chemical Safety Board, and state and local officials involved in planning for and responding to chemical emergencies.
Under EPA's regulatory requirements, by June 21, 1999, nearly 64,000 facilities that handle large quantities of very hazardous chemicals will submit RMPs to EPA for the first time. In their RMPs, facilities will describe how they will detect, prevent, or minimize releases of hazardous substances and how they will promptly respond to any chemical accident.
Facilities will report any serious accidental releases that have occurred at their sites in the last five years and how they have coordinated with local emergency responders. In addition, they will provide information about the potential consequences of a worst-case release and alternative release scenarios. Despite reports to the contrary, the information in these reports does not include information that tells anyone how to cause an accident. Rather, the information describes the effects of a possible accident on the surrounding population and the environment.
RMPs will improve chemical safety in two basic ways. First, they will ensure that covered facilities identify and address the hazards posed by their handling of very hazardous chemicals. Second, and equally important, they will provide information to the public about the risk of accidental releases and facilities' efforts to prevent and mitigate any releases. The availability of RMPs is expected to stimulate communication between industry, local governments, and the public to improve accident prevention and emergency response practices.
Public opinion polls consistently show strong support for safety and environmental protection. Section 112(r) is consistent with these values and is one of several "right-to-know" laws that give citizens the information they need to assess and promote public health and environmental protection in their communities and across the nation.
Consistent with the purpose of Section 112(r), EPA provides national leadership and assistance to communities so that they will have the tools and expertise they need to receive, assimilate, and analyze all chemical accident prevention data, and to take appropriate measures to reduce accidental risk and toxic emissions at the local level.
To make information more useful, EPA was urged by stakeholders in the chemical safety area to collect and distribute RMP information electronically. Our experience with EPCRA implementation taught us that this would not only be more efficient than paper submittals, but also that it would improve data quality and allow State and local governments to apply their limited program resources to use the information to address chemical safety rather than to manage the data.
The Accident Prevention Subcommittee of the CAA Advisory Committee (under the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA)) created the Electronic Submission Workgroup in October 1996, comprised of 35 members representing State and local government, industry, environmental and public interest groups, and EPA. The Workgroup was charged with recommending how industry should submit their risk management plans, and how EPA, State and local governments, and the public should have access to this information.
The Workgroup completed its work in June 1997 with a final report, which recommended that a data retrieval system be established to provide access to RMPs for all stakeholders. The workgroup unanimously agreed to make most of the RMP data available without restriction on the Internet. However, the workgroup could not agree on whether the Offsite Consequence Analysis, or OCA, data should be available on the Internet. The OCA data includes information on a worst-case scenario accident at a facility and estimates the area of a community and the total population potentially affected by a release.
The Workgroup raised this issue to their parent Subcommittee, who spent the next year and a half gathering data, evaluating the risks, and debating the issue. In response to concerns about how EPA would distribute the OCA portion of RMPs, the Agency continues to work with appropriate agencies and interested parties to take reasonable steps that would strike the appropriate balance between providing public access to information about chemical risks and reducing the risk of terrorism. On November 6, 1998, EPA announced that it would not post the OCA data on the Internet; all other RMP information would be available on the Web.
Balancing these risks continues to be a high priority and the EPA is continuing to explore, with other relevant agencies, other means of providing public access to OCA data that reduce the risk of terrorism. EPA and the FBI have made great progress in this area.
In recent weeks, EPA has continued to meet with other Federal agencies to discuss how to provide RMPs, including OCA data, to state and local governments. Based on our discussions, EPA will:
. Work with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to explore the feasibility of a "closed" system for sharing the OCA data with State and local government agencies; and
. Inform our state and local government partners of EPA's decision not to post OCA data on the Internet and strongly encourage them to follow suit.
EPA is working with the RMP Implementation Workgroup of the Accident Prevention Subcommittee to identify places the public can go to get local access to RMP data of interest to them. The Subcommittee is considering using the facilities themselves, the State Emergency Response Commission, the Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC), or other State and local government sources to identify local sources of RMP data.
EPA also is discussing various ways to respond to public requests for the national RMP database, including OCA data that balances the public's right to know with the sensitivity of the data. Procedures EPA will employ include:
. Contacting each requestor to inquire whether the individual is seeking the entire database and describing what information already is publicly available, which is all RMP data except OCA; and
. Asking whether the RMP database without facility identification information would suffice (researchers interested in national trends, for example, may not require the information).
For citizens who want the full national database, EPA is exploring the possibility of a "Read-only" CD-ROM that could not be copied, duplicated, or posted on the Internet. Software capable of providing this kind of protection is in the development stage, and we will work with appropriate governmental and private experts to determine its technical and legal feasibility.
EPA is committed to providing citizens with RMP information that will help them work with government and industry to protect themselves, their families, and their communities from chemical accidents and to make other informed decisions about their lives. EPA also is committed to providing this information in a way that is responsible, and takes into account the security concerns raised by the FBI and others. We will continue to work with all interested parties to meet this challenge.