Mike DeWine, the governor of Ohio, recently lamented the toll suffered by residents of East Palestine following a toxic train derailment there, saying that “no other community should have to go through this.”
But such accidents are happening with surprising regularity. A Guardian analysis of data collected by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and by nonprofit groups that track chemical accidents in the US shows that accidental releases, whether through train derailments , truck accidents, pipeline ruptures or industrial plant leaks and spills, are constantly occurring across the country.
According to one estimate, these incidents occur, on average, every two days.
“These kinds of hidden disasters happen all too often,” Mathy Stanislaus, who served as deputy administrator of the EPA’s office of land and emergency management during the Obama administration, told The Guardian. Stanislaus led programs focused on hazardous waste site cleanup, 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 Disastersabout 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 began counting in April 2020.
The incidents recorded by the coalition vary widely in severity, but each involves the accidental release of chemicals that are considered to pose a potential threat to human and environmental health.
In September, for example, nine people were hospitalized and 300 evacuated in California after a caustic material spill at a recycling facility. In October, authorities ordered residents to shelter in place after an explosion and a fire at a petrochemical plant in Louisiana. In November, more than 100 Atchinson, Kansas, residents received treatment for respiratory problems and evacuated schools after an accident at a beverage manufacturing plant. created a chemical cloud over the city
Among several incidents in December, a large pipeline ruptured in rural northern Kansas, choking the surrounding land and waterways with 588,000 gallons of water. diluted bitumen crude oil. Hundreds of workers are still trying to clean up the mess from the pipeline, at a cost set at about $488 million.
It is difficult to determine the exact number of incidents involving hazardous chemicals because the US has multiple agencies involved in the response, but the EPA told The Guardian that over the past 10 years, the agency “has taken an average of 235 actions emergency response per year, including responses to releases of hazardous chemicals or oil. The agency said it employs approximately 250 people dedicated to EPA’s emergency response and removal program.
‘Living with the daily fear of an accident’
The coalition has counted 10 rail-related chemical contamination events in the past two and a half years, including the derailment in eastern Palestine, where dozens of carriages on a Norfolk Southern train derailed on February 3, contaminating the community of 4700 people with toxic vinyl. chloride.
However, the vast majority of incidents occur at the thousands of facilities across the country where hazardous chemicals are used and stored.
“What happened in eastern Palestine is commonplace in communities that live next to chemical plants,” Stanislaus said. “They live in daily fear of an accident.”
In total, about 200 million people are at regular risk, many of them people of color or disadvantaged communities, he said.
There are about 12,000 facilities across the country that have “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 oil refineries, chemical manufacturers, cold stores, 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, approximately 160 per year. More than 775 were reported from 2014 through 2020. Additionally, after analyzing accidents over a recent five-year period, the EPA said it found that accident response evacuations affected more than 56,000 people and 47,000 people were ordered to they “shelter in place”. ”
Accident rates are particularly high at oil and coal manufacturing and chemical manufacturing facilities, according to the EPA. Most of the recorded accidents were in Texas, followed by Louisiana and California.
Although industry representatives say the accident rate is declining, workers and community advocates disagree. They say that incomplete data and incident reporting delays give a false sense of improvement.
EPO itself says that by various measures, accidents at facilities are increasing: evacuations, shelters and the average annual rate of people seeking medical treatment from chemical accidents are increasing. 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 various changes to the Risk Management Program (RMP) regulations that apply to plants that handle hazardous chemicals. The rule changes reflect EPA’s recognition that many chemical facilities are located in areas that are vulnerable to the impacts of the climate crisis, including power outages, flooding, hurricanes, and other weather events.
Proposed changes include improved emergency preparedness, increased public access to information about hazardous chemical risks facing communities, and new accident prevention requirements.
The US Chamber of Commerce has regressed on tougher regulations, arguing that most facilities are operating safely, accidents are on the decline and that facilities affected by any rule changes are supplying “essential products and services that help drive our economy and create jobs in our communities”. Other opponents of strengthening safety rules include the American Chemistry Council, the American Forest and Paper Association, the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, and the American Petroleum Institute.
The changes are “unnecessary” and will not improve security, according to the American Chemistry Council.
Many worker and community advocates, such as the International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace & Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW), which represents approximately one million workers, say the proposed rule changes don’t go far enough..
And Senator Cory Booker and US Representative Nanette Barragán, along with 47 other members of Congress, have also called on the EPA strengthen regulations to protect communities from dangerous chemical accidents.
“The train derailment in eastern Palestine is an environmental disaster that requires full responsibility and urgency on the part of the federal government. We need that same urgency to focus on preventing these chemical disasters from happening in the first place,” Barragán said in a statement issued to The Guardian.
‘Let’s be ready’
For Eboni Cochran, a mother and volunteer community activist, the East Palestine disaster has barely increased her faith in the federal government. Cochran lives with her husband and her 16-year-old son about 400 miles south of the derailment, near an industrial area of Louisville, Kentucky, 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 neighborhoods near the plants.
Cochran and her family keep what she calls “muddle-through” backpacks ready in case of a chemical accident. They stock the backpacks with two changes of clothing, protective eyewear, first aid kits, and other items they think they may need if they are forced to flee their home.
The organization he works with, Rubbertown Emergency Action (React), wants to see continuous monitoring of the air near the plants, regular evacuation drills and other measures to better prepare people in the event of an accidental chemical release. But it has been difficult to make the voices of the locals heard, she says.
“Decision makers are not bringing affected communities to the table,” he said.
Meanwhile, React is trying to empower locals to be prepared to protect themselves if the worst happens. Providing emergency evacuation backpacks to people near the plants is one small step.
“Even in small doses, certain toxic chemicals can be dangerous. They can lead to long-term chronic disease, they can lead to acute disease,” Cochran said. “If there is a big explosion, we will be ready.”
This story is co-published with the new leda journalism project of the Environmental Working Group.