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CHEMICAL PLANT ACCIDENTS

Across the United States, approximately 15,000 facilities produce, use or store more than threshold amounts of chemicals identified by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as posing the greatest risk to human health and the environment if accidently released into the air.1

These chemical plants are often located near high-density population areas. Based on an analysis of the EPA's records, Greenpeace determined that one in three Americans is at risk of a poison gas disaster by living near one of hundreds of chemical facilities that store and use highly toxic chemicals. A chemical disaster at just one of these facilities could kill or injure thousands of people with acute poisoning.2 Of the 12,440 chemical facilities that report their chemical disaster scenarios to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Greenpeace has identified 473 chemical facilities across the U.S. that each put 100,000 people or more at risk. Of those, 89 put one million or more people at risk up to 25 miles downwind from a plant.3

And accidents do occur! On April 17, 2013 a massive explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas killed 15 people, 12 of whom were volunteer firefighters. This tragedy brought the dangers of chemical facilities to the national consciousness. A few months later, President Obama issued an Executive Order, which directed the EPA to act to make chemical facilities safer. Despite the Executive Order there continues to be a nationwide pattern of chemical incidents that continue to cause injury and death, as evidenced by the 425 chemical incidents that have occurred since the tragedy in Texas.4

SHELTER-IN-PLACE OR EVACUATE?

Numerous examples of the effectiveness of sheltering-in-place have been cited over the years:5

  • Labarre, LA in 1961
    A 30-ton chlorine release immediately surrounded the house of a young family. After about 15-20 minutes, the father panicked and carried his young son outdoors. The rest of the family stayed inside. The family and the father survived, but the young boy died from the chlorine exposure he received outside.
  • Richmond, CA on July 26, 1993
    A tank car carrying oleum overheated and ruptured sending a cloud of sulfur trioxide into the air. The Contra Costa County Health Services Department reported that 22,000 people in the community sought medical attention, 22 were hospitalized. Employees of a nearby plant, in the direct path of the plume, sheltered in place and were not injured.
  • Nitro, WV on December 5, 1995
    A process vessel at an FMC chemical plant over-pressurized and released a phosphorus chloride compound into the diked area around the vessel. In the rain, a hydrochloric acid cloud was formed which drifted offsite into an adjacent office and commercial area. More than 800 employees of a neighboring chemical plant and several offices sheltered in place while the plume passed over the area. No injuries were reported. Businesses in the area had been trained in sheltering for employees.
  • Pittsburgh, CA in 1998
    At a refinery, an accident released 900 pounds of chlorine. About 7,000 people in the immediate community were alerted to shelter-in-place. One employee was injured in the incident, but no injuries were reported from offsite.

    The Richmond, California example is especially instructive. It notes that 22,000 people in the community sought medical assistance. Those kinds of numbers are enough to overwhelm any community's healthcare resources. In addition, physicians in the community who are called upon to respond to incidents involving uncontrolled chemical exposure are seldom prepared to do so, as physicians with special training in occupational and environmental medicine are in short supply and may not be readily available.6

Sources/Footnotes

  1. "Homeland Security: DHS Is Taking Steps to Enhance Security at Chemical Facilities, But Additional Authority is Needed," GAO-06-150, January 27, 2006, pg.9.
  2. http://usactions.greenpeace.org/chemicals/map
  3. Ibid.
  4. NOTE: This number is as of October 6, 2017. Source: Coalition to Prevent Chemical Disasters; https://preventchemicaldisasters.org/resources/158971-2/
  5. National Institute for Chemical Studies, "Effectiveness of Shelter-In-Place: Examples from across the Country," PDF.
  6. Guidotti, Tee L., MD, "Managing the Medical Response to a Major Industrial Accident Involving Uncontrolled Chemical Exposure," University of Alberta, Canada, 2006, pg. 5