Worst Case Scenario: First Responders May Lose Track of Dangerou - WSPA.com

Worst Case Scenario: First Responders May Lose Track of Dangerous Chemicals

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First responders may lose track of dangerous chemicals near you. First responders may lose track of dangerous chemicals near you.

There is a brick shelter, open on each end, with the “danger” inside clearly marked.  A water treatment facility in Spartanburg County uses chlorine to purify the wastewater before it is released into a nearby creek.  Two long gray tanks hold two tons of the poisonous gas.  The facility managers granted access to the tanks on the condition that 7 On Your Side not specifically identify their exact location, fearing criminal or terrorist activity. It is important to report, however, that about the shed, an orange windsock hangs limp. 

“If there’s a leak, we check that to see which way the wind is blowing,” said one employee. “Then we run the other way.”

South Carolina has firsthand experience with the lethal danger of a chlorine cloud.  In 2005, a train pulling tankers of the gas derailed near Graniteville killing 9 people, including one who drove his truck through the expanding cloud.  250 people suffered health problems from exposure.  Emergency responders evacuated homes for miles.

Spartanburg County is home to more than 250 sites which store reportable amounts of hazardous chemicals.  Greenville County has about the same number.  In the more rural Oconee County, there are 64.

“There are a lot of chemicals that have the potential to do a lot of harm in our community.  It ranges anything from sulphuric acid to chlorines to fertilizer.  It can be any number of things,” said Oconee County Fire Chief Charlie King.

 “I don’t think the everyday citizen is aware of the chemicals that are stored around them,” King said.


First responders and emergency planners use a detailed computer system called “E-Plan” to track hazardous chemicals.

Any facility storing hazardous chemicals reports that information to their state government.  In South Carolina the “Tier II” information is collected by the Department of Health and Environmental Control.

E-Plan, developed by the University of Texas at Dallas, gathered all of that information and added data on each chemical.  How did it disperse?  How many people should first responders evacuate?  What is the risk of explosion.   The total cost to maintain the system was just $1.5 million per year.

Most Upstate fire departments develop fire response plans for each area they protect.  With E-Plan they know what to expect before they rush into a fire.

That same information could have saved the lives of firefighters in West, Texas.  A fire there killed 15 people and leveled much of the town when ammonium nitrate stored at the flaming facility exploded.

“It takes a loss of lives or loss of multiple lives, in this case first responders, before this type of issue comes to the forefront,” said Spartanburg County Emergency Response Chief Doug Bryson.

“People drive by these facilities every day and they never hear from them.  They never hear of any incidents.  They just forget it,” Bryson said.

E-Plan operated with funding from the Environmental Protection Agency until 2006.  Funding from the Department of Homeland Security kept the program running until August 1st of this year.

Now, with federal funding gone the program will disappear.  South Carolina joined several other states to fund E-Plan for one additional year.  After that, there is no replacement.

“E-plan, that chemical database, is critical to responders,” King said.

“It’s definitely a life or death situation,” said Bryson.


The same day federal funding for E-plan disappeared, President Obama signed an executive order creating a “Chemical Facility Safety and Security Working Group.”

The “working group” was to be comprised of an assistant secretary from the Department of Homeland Security, EPA, and Department of Labor as well as representatives from several other cabinet level agencies.

The executive order clearly sets benchmark guidelines for protecting the public from chemical hazards.  The “working group” had 90 days, starting August 1st, to :

·         “assess the feasibility of sharing data related to the storage of explosive materials”

·         “assess the feasibility of sharing Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism standards”

·         “consult with the Chemical Safety Board”

·         “improve collection by and sharing between agencies to help identify chemical facilities which may not have provided all required information”

·         “engage key stakeholders”

·         “improve the safe and secure storage, handling, and sale of ammonium nitrate”

Reached by phone an official with the Department of Homeland Security declined an interview and said the agency would not comment on whether chemical facilities were actually safer now than on August 1st.

Ernesta Jones, a spokesperson with the Environmental Protection Agency, initially responded that she was “looking after your inruiry.”

7 On Your side submitted 5 questions, including “has the group met?” and “will the group be able to mee the benbenchmarkals?”

Jones responded with a formal statement :

“Due to the lapse in appropriations and the need to reschedule stakeholder outreach efforts, agencies participating in the chemical facility EO working group have been given additional time to submit deliverables.  Agencies are working on revising deadlines, as needed.  The working group plans to provide an update on overall progress in early December.”

When pressed for an interview, Jones said “We won’t be able to provide an interview, but can answer questions in writing.”  That email was sent on October 28th at 3:46pm.

Here is the email sent by Community Watchdog Gordon Dill that same day at 4:05pm :

Great :

Given the delay in achieving the benchmarks is the EPA better positioned to monitor hazardous chemicals now than on August 1st…the date of the Executive Order?

One of the 90-day benchmarks in the Order was “EPA (and other agencies) determine what if any changes are required to any MOU and processes for timely and full disclosure of information”.  Will a delay in  meeting this goal impact the EPAs ability to share and monitor chemical safety information?

Another 90 day goal is to “develop options for improved chemical facility safety and security that identifies improvements to existing risk management practices”.  Has this process begun? 

A National study by Reuters showed that many state level monitoring of hazardous chemical sites contained inaccurate or incomplete data.   Does the EPA audit this information?  When was the last time TIER II data was audited in South Carolina?

Who, specifically, from the EPA is on the working group?

Thank you,

Jones responded 1 hour later.  “The statement we provided earlier is our only response at this time.”

Weeks later, a representative of the department of Homeland Security sent the same formal statement issued by the EPA.

Both acknowledged the deadlines would be missed.  Both agencies blamed the government shutdown.  None would answer questions about whether first responders were in danger.

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