It is recommended that this section be read in entirety to better understand the EPCRA law and how it affects fire departments and their firefighters.
What is EPCRA?
EPCRA [Emergency Planning and Community Right-To-Know Act] is a law designed to inform communities and responders about chemicals and chemical hazards present and transported in the community; involve the community in developing emergency planning and response; in helping identify facilities that might be subject to the law; and assuring implementation of the EPCRA law. SARA Title III is part of the Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act of 1986, which makes it part of the CERCLA [Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act] laws. Under EPCRA, a facility is any of the following: all buildings, structures, equipment, and other stationary items located at the same single place and controlled or operated by the same entity.
EPCRA provides an infrastructure at the state and local levels to plan for chemical emergencies. Facilities that have spilled hazardous substances, or that store, use, or release certain chemicals are subject to various reporting requirements. All of this information is made publicly available so that interested parties may become informed about potentially dangerous chemicals in their community. Common EPCRA topics include: Emergency planning; hazardous chemical inventory reporting; public access to chemical information; toxic chemical release reporting and the Form R; and the toxic release inventory (TRI) database.
Fire departments are one of the recipients of chemical inventory reports and emergency plans required from facilities by EPCRA. There are other reports and notifications that EPCRA requires from facilities that fire departments do not automatically receive, so fire departments need to understand EPCRA to garner all of the information that might be helpful to them. Many firefighters remain unaware of the law, however, and not every fire department utilizes the EPCRA data or participates in and with the agencies and processes that EPCRA created. EPCRA provides some of the information needed by firefighters to respond to a chemical spills and releases. The information facilities provide to fire departments because of EPCRA's requirements is also useful in preparing to respond to potential emergencies involving hazardous chemical spills and releases. EPCRA is also designed to inform fire departments and firefighters about chemicals and potential chemical hazards present and transported in the community. For firefighters, this information is mostly used for response, but depending on the resources available, the fire departments may be involved in emergency planning and preparedness and other preventative measures. The BOLDER Project software picks up where EPCRA began and provides responders far more facility information and related data that is actually needed for effective and efficient response. The software even puts the data in a format friendly to responders.
What Motivated Passage of the Federal EPCRA?
The Emergency Planning and Community Right-To-Know Act, called EPCRA, also known as SARA Title III, is commonly referred to as the Community Right-To-Know law or simply as EPCRA. (SARA Title III is part of the Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act of 1986, which makes it part of the CERCLA laws.) EPCRA was passed in 1986 by the United States Congress after a 1984 chemical disaster in Bhopal, India, caused widespread death (more than 2,000 people initially) and illnesses. This well-publicized event raised concerns that there was a lack of planning and preparation for a similar accident in America. A subsequent chemical release similar to the Bhopal, India incident occurred in Institute, West Virginia, sending more than 100 people to the hospital for medical treatment for injuries. It became obvious that such chemical incidents can and do happen in the United States. Public awareness of the potential danger from accidental releases of hazardous substances has increased over the years as serious chemical accidents have occurred around the world.
There had been some disasters involving hazardous chemicals in the United States that focused attention on the fact that firefighters did not have access to data about the chemical hazards at facilities. One famous example is the petroleum pipeline rupture and fire in Roseville, Minnesota in the early 1980s. Several people lost their lives in that conflagration. In response to this disaster, there was a bill proposed in the Minnesota legislature titled the Firefighter and Community Right-To-Know Act. This law, if passed, would have put the data about chemicals stored at facilities into the hands of firefighters. In other states, there were similar types of legislation proposed. When Congress passed EPCRA, the different states were left with the task of creating their own state laws to implement EPCRA. The ways that EPCRA and emergency planning laws are implemented are not the same in every state.
What's In EPCRA for Firefighters?
When firefighters have the information about the amounts, types, and locations of chemicals present at a facility, it allows for a more efficient emergency response and removes some of the guesswork that firefighters would have to undertake. And having a facility operator or owner gather the data needed for EPCRA reports and prepare a facility emergency plan certainly is an important exercise that makes these facility owners and operators think about what can go wrong. Without EPCRA, some facility operators would never plan for an emergency. Nobody plans to have an accident, but accidents do happen. When firefighters respond to an emergency call and find an unknown tank of chemicals, they must back off until they can identify the chemical and the hazards. This takes time when time is of the essence. The response in the first few minutes of a chemical spill or release can make the real difference in mitigating the release in terms of a facility's total liability. And knowing how far away from the facility the public and others could be affected (vulnerability zone) is very important in terms of saving lives and properties beyond the fence line of the facility with the chemical spill. When reporting facilities and fire departments use the BOLDER Project software, it solves these problems.
A chemical accident is reported in the United States an average of 21 times a day. [New information suggests that chemical accidents are vastly underreported, and the actual number may be four times as high.]
One in twenty of the reported chemical accidents that occurred in the United States resulted in immediate injuries, evacuations or deaths. Anhydrous ammonia, chlorine, sulfuric acid, sulfur dioxide, and hydrochloric acid were the chemicals most frequently involved in accidents with immediate injury, evacuation, and death.
(Source: Accidents Do Happen: Toxic Chemical Accident Patterns in the United States, December 1996, by United States Public Interest Research Group and the National Environmental Law Center.)
Firefighters should be alert to determine if the facilities in their jurisdiction are complying with EPCRA. They should know if the appropriate chemical emergency plans have been developed by government agencies for their jurisdictions also. Fire departments are often represented on LEPCs [Local Emergency Planning Committees] where larger, cross-jurisdictional overlaying plans are developed, including resource sharing.
EPCRA provides fire departments with an opportunity to make sure the correct equipment to deal with a facility's chemical incident is on hand and that the proper responder training has occurred before there is an incident at a facility. Not having the right resources can be fatal to responders or harm their health. When a new industry opens in a community, there needs to be planning and preparation by the fire departments to assure a proper response is possible. A full 85% of the fire departments that respond in the United States are volunteer fire departments, a fact that underscores the need for advance information and planning.
EPCRA Presents Some Impracticalities
It was Congress that drafted and passed the EPCRA laws, but since firefighters are not often congressional aides, there are some disconnects in the law itself. And although there were some impracticalities for fire departments in EPCRA, EPCRA was an important policy change and first step. Looking back, it is hard to understand the rationale against firefighters being entitled to facility chemical hazard information. In the event of an incident involving hazardous chemicals, it was the fire department that would inevitably be called to respond. Facility employees were entitled to MSDS information, so why not firefighters?
Now that the EPCRA data is available to firefighters, there are still problems implementing the information. There is no practical way for a fire department to put the facility site and chemical data onto the responder vehicles in any useful, real-time way. Response requires quick action, and there is not enough time to retrieve a facility's file or to get the EPCRA information to a responder hurrying to the scene. Facilities may change locations of chemicals on-site, or chemical processes, so firefighters may find the EPCRA information inaccurate or outdated when they roll up on the incident scene. The BOLDER Project allows the responders to have real-time, updated facility data at their fingertips in an easily accessible format. Using the BOLDER Project, the facility data will also be far more detailed and tailored for responders' needs than the information on EPCRA's required reports. The BOLDER Project addresses all these concerns.
There are other federal and state laws requiring emergency plans at facilities that would not be required to report under EPCRA. These facilities could still present a risk to firefighters during a response. The fire department would still need to get the facility emergency plan data in order to respond more efficiently and safely, and then find some way to access the data in the time of an incident. The BOLDER Project condenses the data from all required emergency plans onto one electronic format, so it serves the response purpose of all of these emergency planning laws.
The community is legally entitled to much of the same information that EPCRA provides to firefighters, but the EPCRA law makes other agencies, the Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC) and the State Emergency Response Commission (SERC), the place the public gets its EPCRA information. Fire departments are not required to provide EPCRA information to the public by the federal statute. However, many states have laws requiring this information to be made public if requested. Generally, public requests for EPCRA information should be referred to the LEPC.
The EPCRA law provides that facilities must file certain EPCRA reports regarding chemicals present and stored on-site with the local fire department. Other reports and information required by EPCRA are provided to the LEPC and/or SERC. The local fire department will want to be kept abreast of these other EPCRA reports regarding releases of chemicals and the consequences of these releases. To do this, the fire department may need to work out an information sharing agreement with the LEPC and SERC. Ideally, the fire department should be represented on the LEPC, or send a representative to attend LEPC meetings.
The community is a natural ally of firefighters in EPCRA implementation. EPCRA is often simply called the Community Right-To-Know law. When designing EPCRA, Congress noted that the government itself could not tackle the enormous job of enforcement and compliance, and EPCRA was designed to enlist the help of the public. EPCRA gives citizens enforcement powers, the right to sue facilities that do not comply with the reporting law, and even the right to sue their government if EPCRA information is not provided. It is in the public's best interests that EPCRA be implemented in all localities.
When the BOLDER Project conducted focus group discussions with citizens about the design and purpose of its electronic planning tool software, the overwhelming position stated was that the public wanted the information necessary for an efficient and safe response (safe for firefighters and the public) in the hands of firefighters at the incident scene. In general, the public was not interested in knowing or having access to the specific facility data that would be in the BOLDER Project software. They just wanted to know THAT the responsible agencies and responders have the information that they need to conduct a safe and efficient response. The other information that the public did want was tied to the off-site consequence or vulnerability analysis. Simply stated, would the spill reach their door, or affect their children at school?
What is EPCRA information?
The EPCRA law provides that facilities must file certain EPCRA reports with the local fire department. These reports are called Tier Two Reports. The Tier Two Report is not nearly comprehensive enough (hence the BOLDER Project) but is a good start. Other reports and information required by EPCRA are provided to the LEPC and/or SERC.