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Chemical reporting system riddled with failure

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By Reuters
Saturday, Aug. 10, 2013, 5:18 p.m.

NEW YORK — A 27-year-old program intended to warn the public of the presence of hazardous chemicals is flawed in many states because of scant oversight and lax reporting by plant owners, a Reuters examination finds.

Under the federal Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act, private and public facilities must issue an inventory listing potentially hazardous chemicals stored on their properties. The inventory, known as a Tier II report, is filed with state, county and local emergency management officials. The information is then supposed to be made publicly available to help first responders and nearby residents plan for emergencies.

But facilities across the country often misidentify these chemicals or their location and sometimes fail to report the existence of the substances altogether.

And except for a handful of states, neither federal nor local authorities are auditing the reports for errors.

Reuters identified dozens of errors in Tier II reports in recent years and found several facilities that failed to report altogether.

Two states ­— Illinois and Wisconsin — introduced errors into the public databases through which they disclose information from Tier II reports. The reports document the presence of hazardous chemicals, such as ammonium nitrate, lead, sulfuric acid and diesel fuel.

In 2006, clothing company Carhartt Inc. failed to report that its plant in Morehead, Ky., was storing chlorine on the premises. Two firefighters were exposed and one suffered chemical burns when they shut a leaking valve at the plant without proper safety gear. Carhartt said the plant was shuttered at the time of the leak but did not say why reports weren't filed.

This year, a water treatment facility in Valley City, N.D., failed to submit a Tier II report. After Reuters notified state officials, the plant filed a Tier II showing the presence of a host of toxic or explosive materials, including ammonium hydroxide, chlorine, sulfuric acid, sodium hydroxide, sodium permanganate, hydrochloric acid and phosphoric acid. Company officials said they are not sure why no reports were filed and are looking into the issue.

In June, homes and businesses in Seward, Ill., were evacuated for a day after a fire and explosion at Nova-Kem LLC injured one employee and released a plume of smoke containing caustic and toxic chemicals, including chlorine gas. The company, which makes compounds used in high-tech applications, did not report storing hazardous chemicals, according to Dennis Lolli, coordinator of the Winnebago County Emergency Services and Disaster Agency.

No firefighters were injured. But for emergency teams, knowing what chemicals they are facing is critical, Lolli said.

“I don't know why they didn't” file the reports, he said. “It certainly takes away an advantage.”

Representatives of Nova-Kem did not respond to requests for comment.

There are hundreds of thousands of sites nationwide required to report hazardous chemical inventories under the Tier II system. About 500,000 chemicals are subject to the requirement.

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