A coalition of environmental groups filed a federal lawsuit Thursday in an effort to win a court order forcing the federal agency that oversees safety in the oil and chemical industries to require the public disclosure of accidental releases of hazardous materials.
The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, which is probing the February 2015 explosion at the Torrance Refinery that it said almost caused a catastrophic release of highly toxic hydrofluoric acid, has never adopted such a mandate even though it was required by the 1990 law that created the agency.
Instead, for almost three decades, the CSB actually fought against adopting the rule it declared “duplicative,” in part because state or local laws required such reporting. In California, for instance, refineries and chemical plants are required to report accidental releases to the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, which enters the information into an online database.
But in practical terms, the CSB relies on media reports to learn about accidental chemical releases, said Adam Carlesco, an attorney representing Washington, D.C.-based Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.
“A news clipping service is not an adequate safeguard for the health of communities, workers, and first-responders,” he said. “American communities are forced into a game of Russian roulette, never knowing when an explosive round will go off — or what it contains.”
A former CSB official who requested anonymity confirmed the agency’s reliance on news media to gather information.
“It’s surprising, but true — the CSB relies on media accounts to track chemical disasters,” the former official said.
“We definitely miss things because of not having a rule,” the official added. “It would go a long way to filling in the gaps. It’s extremely difficult to know what kinds of accidents to investigate when you don’t know the whole universe of what’s out there.”
Vidisha Parasram, the CSB director of incident screening, whose job it is to monitor media reports of chemical incidents, is known to support enacting such a rule, the former CSB official. She did not respond to a message left Thursday seeking comment.
Adopting that rule would improve transparency and provide a significant public benefit to the South Bay, home to seven of the eight Southern California oil refineries, including the only two to use modified hydrofluoric acid in the state, said Sally Hayati, president of the Torrance Refinery Action Alliance.
ExxonMobil, the previous owner of the Torrance refinery, is fighting the federal government in court over the release of documents that could prove how dangerous — or safe — MHF actually is, for instance.
Current refinery officials also maintain that the additive in MHF inhibits the formation of a toxic gas cloud, while providing no data to support their position.
The TRAA has said there is no scientific evidence of that and, in fact, one MHF study concluded the opposite, saying the additive is ineffective at preventing gas cloud formation, Hayati said.
Government agencies have sided with the TRAA; the South Coast Air Quality Management District was the latest this summer when it said insufficient evidence exists to conclude MHF reduces the risk to the general public.
“They have identified a significant problem,” Hayati said of the lawsuit. “I agree with them that communities need to know what chemicals are being released. My experience has been that the public never gets figures of toxic releases that are anywhere near accurate.
“(The data) is very important and it should be made available to the public in real time,” she added.
The importance of the data was underlined earlier this year during Hurricane Harvey when flooding of the Arkema chemical plant in Houston caused chemical fires and explosions, PEER said.
But emergency responders and local residents were unaware of what chemicals were released and their dangers. Consequently, they experienced adverse reactions that required hospital treatment, according to lawsuits filed in the wake of the flooding.
“America’s sole industrial safety monitor is currently flying blind and placing the health of the public at risk,” said Carlesco, the PEER attorney. “Congress has clearly required, and the CSB has acknowledged, that a rule must be promulgated to inform the public as to what chemicals industries have spewed into the atmosphere following an accident. Our lawsuit would finally implement this unambiguous yet long-neglected mandate.”