Community members' role in EPCRA - discussion

It is recommended that this entire section is read and reviewed thoroughly before taking action. It is designed to help get a basic understanding of this law and how the publicly available information can be used. There is much to learn and understand.

Community members' role in EPCRA - discussion

What is EPCRA?

The Emergency Planning and Community Right-To-Know Act, called EPCRA, is also known as SARA Title III, but is commonly referred to as the Community Right-To-Know law or simply as EPCRA. EPCRA was passed in 1986 by the United States Congress after a chemical disaster in Bhopal, India, causing widespread death and illness, raised concerns about a lack of planning and preparation for a similar accident in America. EPCRA is designed to inform communities 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 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.

The Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA), law provided 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 toxics release inventory (TRI) database.

What's in EPCRA for you?

Ask yourself these questions: If there were a cloud of poisonous chemical gases coming at you or your home right now, would you know how to protect yourself, your loved ones, and your property? Have the necessary steps been taken by government to plan and protect you and your family in such an event? Are the facilities near you in compliance with this law? Do the firefighters know what hazardous chemicals are present at facilities near your neighborhood, and their amounts and locations, so they can effectively respond in case of an accident?

A chemical accident is reported in the United States an average of 21 times a day.

One in twenty of the 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.)

Since human beings and industrial processes are prone to fail, toxic accidents will continue to occur until industrial processes are redesigned to be inherently more safe and involve less toxic materials.

Get involved!

Citizens can and should be alert to determine if the facilities near them are complying with EPCRA or Community Right-To-Know. Citizens should know if the appropriate chemical emergency plans have been developed by government agencies for their neighborhood. IF YOU DON'T KNOW, GO FIND OUT! 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 the public's best interests that EPCRA be implemented in all localities.

What is EPCRA information?

This EPCRA law gives the public the explicit Right to Know about this chemical information. Anyone has a Right to see and get copies of the Tier Two Reports (chemical storage reports), facility emergency plans, written followup reports, regional emergency plans, and Material Safety Data Sheets [MSDS](chemical properties) with chemical information that a facility has provided to the Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC) and State Emergency Response Commission (SERC). Generally, the LEPC or SERC will already have the MSDS if there are sufficient quantities of a chemical on-site to trigger EPCRA reporting requirements. The public will want to ask in writing for MSDSs, facility emergency plans, written followup reports, regional emergency plans, or Tier Two Reports from the LEPC or SERC. (EPCRA is not designed to make the local fire department a source of this EPCRA information to the public. The time to get involved is before there is a serious chemical incident. Some communities are simply not prepared, and public scrutiny and involvement is in everybody's best interest.

Even if the amount of the hazardous chemical on-site at the facility does not trigger EPCRA reporting requirements, the public also has a right to get any Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) that a facility is required to make available to its employees by requesting it through the LEPC. It is not a good idea, of course, to try to get every MSDS for every chemical at a facility because sometimes there is an MSDS for even a very small amount of something, like certain office supplies. Generally, people would be requesting the MSDSs for chemicals that are reported on a facility's Tier Two Report. Getting the MSDS usually takes time. (EPCRA statutes allow 45 days for the LEPC to respond to a request for Tier Two Reports, but also state that MSDSs, lists of chemicals at facilities, Tier Two reports, emergency plans, and written follow-up notices are to be made available during normal business hours at the LEPC or SERC.) If the MSDS is for a chemical that involves trade secrets, the facility can choose not to provide this, but this is a rare scenario. Most chemicals and chemical mixtures used at facilities are not trade secrets. Most people generally will not want to acquire the facility's MSDSs unless there is a concern triggered by visible tanks of chemicals, chemical odors, or concerns about illness or unusual symptoms.

What do I do with the EPCRA Information?

There are many reasons and ideas for providing this chemical information to communities. First of all, the public can use this EPCRA information to become aware and acquainted with chemical hazards in the community. Then the public can make better informed decisions about what chemical hazards are present in the community, and what the public's role is in an emergency situation.

The public can make sure that there is an adequate regional emergency plan that will protect them and their loved ones in the event of a chemical spill, often called a "hazardous materials incident." The public should know, and the public has the right to know, what the regional plan for chemical emergencies is where they live, travel, and work. If there is no regional emergency plan, or if there is an insufficient regional emergency plan, the public needs to get involved, to volunteer and put pressure to assure an adequate plan is developed, before an incident happens. Without the proper preparations and emergency planning, hazardous materials incidents can overwhelm unprepared emergency response teams.

The public can find out how much of a chemical or chemicals are stored on-site at a facility. The public can find out this information about all the facilities in the community, and determine the aggregate amounts by totalling all the chemicals stored at the facilities in their community. This can help the public determine their relative risk or hazard from a chemical spill.

The public can determine how far away from a facility a spill of chemicals could reach or affect. Just because a facility has reportable quantities of a hazardous chemical does not mean that a spill would affect others beyond the property boundary of a facility. In other instances, there may be a risk to people several miles away from the facility. A person should also be able to better assess the risk of encountering a transportation incident involving a "hazardous materials incident" and whether a routine commute is along higher risk routes.

The public should also become aware of whether the local fire department has implemented the use of EPCRA information. The purpose of EPCRA's various required reports is to provide information about facility chemical hazards and chemical dangers which have the potential to travel off the facility site in the event of a chemical accident. If the local fire department is not using this EPCRA information at the scene of chemical incidents or fires at facilities that have chemicals stored on-site, then the community needs to bring pressure immediately to have the use of this EPCRA information implemented. By not using the EPCRA information, fire departments put firefighters, emergency responders, facility owners, facility workers, other businesses, communities, and passersby at a heightened, and unneeded, risk. And a tremendous opportunity has been missed! By using the EPCRA information, fire departments will have more efficient, informed, and timely responses to chemical incidents. The use or lack of use of EPCRA information can have an effect on taxes because it can affect the fire department's budget. Also, a chemical disaster can have devastating effects on a community.

Becoming aware of chemical hazards and preparing for an accident is a necessary adaptation to modern life. Chemicals are used, released, and transported around us all the time. The public can be more than just prepared. The public can be informed and alert to unusual conditions and can assist in protecting the community. If there are leaking tanks or an overturned tanker truck, call the authorities. The public should be alert to problems at nearby facilities, and should report suspicious activities or unusual odors to authorities. If chemical drums are seen bulging at a facility, it should be immediately reported as an emergency.

Finally, the public needs to be aware of shelter-in-place and evacuation strategies for the community. For a complete discussion of this, see Detailed Reference under Community Reference during Chemical Spill. Be sure to be familiar with these concepts. Be sure the local schools, hospitals, day care centers, nursing homes and care facilities, and other vulnerable facilities have shelter-in-place and evacuation plans. in place.


To better understand and be aware of chemical accidents and incidents, the public may want to review the data at the Chemical Incidents Reports Center, a website sponsored by the Chemical Safety Board.

Throughout the day, every day, the Chemical Safety Board (CSB) receives initial reports about chemical incidents that have occurred around the world. The information comes from official government sources, the news media, eyewitnesses and others.

The CSB:

The sheer volume of incident reports received each day exceeds the investigative resources of the CSB or any other single organization.Yet sharing knowledge of these incidents may make it possible for others to take actions that may contribute to improving chemical safety.

Therefore, the Chemical Safety Board has committed resources to create and maintain the Chemical Incident Reports Center (CIRC) website. This dynamic, searchable online database of chemical incidents, although subject to limitations inherent in any compilation of information of this type (see disclaimer below), may enable or inspire actions by a researcher, a government agency or others in support of improving chemical safety.

Disclaimer: The Chemical Incident Reports Center (CIRC) is an information service provided by the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB). Users of this service should note that the contents of the CIRC are not intended to be a comprehensive listing of all incidents that have occurred; many incidents go unreported or are not entered into the database. Also, although the CSB never knowingly posts inaccurate information, the CSB is unable to independently verify all information that it receives from its various sources, much of which is based on initial reports. CIRC users should also note that the CSB receives more comprehensive reports about incidents that occur in the U.S.; comparisons made between U.S. incidents and those in other nations should take this fact into consideration.

Click here to go to the CIRC (

History of EPCRA Law

EPCRA was passed in 1986 by the United States Congress after a 1984 chemical disaster in Bhopal, India, involving methyl isocyanate caused widespread death (more than 2,000 people) and illness, raising concerns about a lack of planning and preparation for a similar accident in America. People are still dying in India as a result of their exposure in that chemical incident. A subsequent chemical release in Institute, West Virginia, sent more than 100 people to the hospital and made Americans aware that such 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.

(For more information about the Bhopal, India, and Institute, West Virginia, chemical incidents go to