Laws leave N.C. first responders guessing about chemicals
Communities hosting toxic waste sites are ill-served
The News & Observer (Raleigh, North Carolina)
Copyright 2006 The News and Observer
First reports said the ominous blaze at the EQ Industrial Services waste facility in Apex was generating clouds of deadly chlorine. Emergency workers decided to evacuate 17,000 residents (28, including some first responders, went to emergency rooms with respiratory problems). Now doubt is being raised whether chlorine was among the chemicals that burned, but EQ says it will need more time to determine just which substances were present. Mayor Keith Weatherly is angry at the delay, and rightly so.
EQ, whose Apex facility sits in the middle of residential neighborhoods, receives and reships a variety of chemical hazardous waste — paints, solvents, swimming pool chemicals (including chlorine), expired drugs and more. Federal and state laws require that it keep a detailed inventory of the materials at its facility.
The company was able to come up with a lengthy coded list, but officials have found that data to be not as informative as they would have liked. Maybe more detailed files went up in Thursday's fire. Certainly, though, the extent of EQ's compliance with inventory-tracking rules needs a close look.
Beyond that, the fire makes it obvious that the public — including people who live near such facilities and emergency responders — deserves more information about the chemicals kept behind the chain-link fences. It seems alarming now that state and local agencies haven't been regularly updated on substances stored at the site. And it's another reason why the firefighters, police officers, medical and other emergency workers who rushed in to take Apex residents out of harm's way are owed a debt of thanks. They remind us again of the steely courage that emergency workers regularly muster.
The fact is, Apex might know more if a federal law enacted after the 1984 chemical disaster in Bhopal, India, hadn't included a big loophole for operations such as EQ's. The law requires most facilities that handle hazardous substances to report their inventories to state and local agencies. Companies such as EQ (it is one of 11 in North Carolina) that transfer substances must keep a list of what's on the property and show it to inspectors. But they don't have to report it to local and state authorities.
Apex's brush with disaster should prompt Congress to require such companies to report daily. It would take just a few keystrokes on a computer to do so. A reasonable standard for what information to include would be: What do first responders need to know, to protect communities and themselves? If Congress doesn't, North Carolina lawmakers should make this kind of reporting a priority.