Monday, August 26, 2013

Dallas paper finds that government is clueless about number of chemical accidents in the U.S.

A study by the Dallas Morning News found that the U.S. government has no idea how often serious or potentially serious industrial chemical accidents occur, Jon McClure, Daniel Lathrop and Matt Jacob report for the newspaper: "In fact, no one at any level of government knows how often serious chemical accidents occur each year in the United States. And there is no plan in place for federal agencies to gather more accurate information." (DMN file photo: The National Response Center said one person died in this 2005 incident when oxygen tanks exploded on a bus near Dallas, though 24 died)

Following the disastrous fertilizer explosion in West, Tex., the reporters analyzed more than 750,000 federal records and "found pervasive inaccuracies and holes in data on chemical accidents, such as the one in West that killed 15 people and injured more than 300," they report. "As a result, the kind of data sharing ordered by President Barack Obama in response to West is unlikely to improve the government’s ability to answer even the most basic questions about chemical safety."

Reporters analyzed data from the U.S. Coast Guard’s National Response Center, the National Fire Incident Reporting System, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Chemical Safety Board, and "if a serious accident was recorded in any data set, the paper attempted to match the records in other data sets according to date and location of the accident, number of fatalities or injuries, or whether there was an evacuation."

"The results were disappointing," the Morning News reports. "During the 2008-11 study period, for example, there were 158 calls to the NRC related to potentially serious chemical accidents at facilities in Texas. But only 12 percent of those could be confirmed in any of the other databases." The reporters did the same study in California, finding that "a total of 174 reports were made of serious chemical accidents in California, with only 10 percent confirmed in the other data sets."

They concluded "that there was no systematic way to identify serious accidents among the hundreds of thousands of records in the four datasets. The only way forward was to loosen the matching criteria and read through more than 500 individual accident narratives to identify serious chemical accidents." They were able to confirm at least 24 serious or potentially serious chemical accidents in Texas between 2008 and 2011 that resulted in deaths, injuries or evacuations. "On rough average, that’s one every two months — a lot more than make headlines." (Read more)

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