High-Tech Toxic Slumber

Travis County Politicians Combat Toxiphobia

By Theresa Case and Kathy Mitchell
April 1991; pages 2, 4-5, 11; Volume 2, No. 5

In July, 1984, the Union Carbide Corporation discovered in its safety audit the possibility of a runaway chemical reaction involving methyl isocyanate at its facility in Institute, West Virginia.

But the company did not release its safety audit to local emergency planners, the city, or the company's smaller but comparable facility in Bhopal, India. Five months later on December 3, the plant in Bhopal accidentally produced a massive release of methyl isocyanate. According to official estimates, the gas killed more than 3,300 people, and at least 100,000 were injured.

The Indian government claims that one person dies every day from exposure during the accident. The Bhopal tragedy shocked the world with the reality that the use of hazardous materials continually carries the risk of the worst possible accidents occurring. Accidents involving propane gas in Mexico City, 19 tons of ammonia in Houston, and nuclear power at Chernoblyl further confirms this.

The EPA's listing of chemical incidents has identified over 11,000 chemical accidents (over 4 accidents per day) in the US between 1980 and 1988, the decade of "state-of-the-art" safety measures and corporate environmentalism. Over 1,000 (2-3 per week) of these accidents were serious ones involving injuries or death. Furthermore, the risk of another Bhopal is real: the EPA has established that the U.S. experienced at least 17 chemical accidents during the same period that potentially had consequences comparable to the Bhopal disaster. Safety features, but also factors like weather conditions, dispersion patterns and population densities, prevented these consequences.

Communities Guaranteed the Right to Know

In response to these kind of incidents, Congress passed the Emergency Planning and Community Right-To-Know Act (EPCRA) in October 1986 - a section, Title III of the federal Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act (SARA). Basically, EPCRA aims to identify the largest sources of toxic pollution, guarantee the public's right to know about hazardous chemicals in the community and increase every citizen's opportunity to participate in emergency planning.

EPCRA provides for the establishment of State Emergency Response Commissions (SERCs) which appoint the Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC) for every local community with toxic facilities. In Texas, the LEPC operates at the county level. By October 17, 1988, by law, each local planning committee should have developed an emergency response plan to deal with potential toxic accidents in their communities, and was required to review this plan annually.

The LEPC requires a broadly based membership from each of the following groups or organizations: elected officials; law enforcement, civil defense, firefighting, first aid, health, local environmental, hospital, and transportation personnel; broadcast and print media; community groups; and owners and operators of affected facilities.

Whereever the mandate of the SARA Title III has been adequately implemented, the inclusion of citizen and environmental activists on an oversight body and creation of an accessible toxics database radically transforms the way people approach toxic hazards.

Publicity about chemical use could only unleash what an official of USS Corporation calls "unbridled toxiphobic specualtion and environmental emotionalism."

For years communities had to gauge their exposure to toxics based upon strange smells coming from a nearby plant, the taste of their drinking waster, or the number of birth defects and cancer cases in their area. Industry hid behind claims of confidential business information and trade-secret protection and selectively chose what information would be turned over to the public.

The Right-To-Know law requires chemical producers and chemical users to put all of their cards on the table regarding toxic emissions and risks posed to the community by hazardous substances.

But in Austin, the LEPC, created in 1988, has not met since December 1989 and has fulfilled in only a limited way the requirements under the law.

Although not the only industry using toxics here, Austin's high-tech industry does use hazardous substances in large quantities. And as the December 1990 issue of the Polemicist pointed out, high tech's reputation as a "clean industry" is largely undeserved: the history of high tech in Silicon Valley has been replete with accidents, massive leaks, high levels of routine emissions into water, air, and land and high rates of worker illness.

Here in Austin, the much smaller, but growing high-tech industry legally released in 1989 over a ton of toxics per day into the environment, according to the EPA's Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) data. Austin's petroleum and petrochemical industry, as well as its aging utilities plants also store toxics in our neighborhoods. Large amounts of toxic chemicals are used during everyday production, and thousands of pounds of hazardous materials are routinely trucked along the highways.

For example, IBM maintains an average of half a million pounds of hydrochloric acid onsite at any one time. Arsine and phosphine, two highly toxic gases which are lethal in even minute concentrations, are also in use by Austin's high-tech industry.

The Sleeping Dog

The Travis County LEPC, chaired by County Judge and sometime high-tech booster Bill Aleshire, held its first meeting in January 1988. Aleshire, also a member of the Travis County Research and Development Corporation with UT President Bill Cunningham, was among the local forces that brought Sematech to Austin. Aleshire (along with development heavyweight Pike Power, Mayor Lee Cooke and Statesman editor and former Chamber of Commerce Chairman Roger Kintzel) was also instrumental in planning for the arrival of the short-lived chip consortia U.S. Memories. Both Sematech and U.S. Memories were to have received substantial city, state, and federal subsidies for bringing their research, jobs, and toxics to Austin.

The LEPC submitted an emergency plan for hazardous substances to the state authoriy, SERC, by the October 1989 deadline. However, when the authors attempted to gain access to the emergency plan and the hazard assessments for the county, disturbing information began to surface.

In addition to the fact that the LEPC hasn't had a meeting since December 1989, two key members, a local environmental representative and a Neighborhood Association representative, have been inactive for almost two years. According to Susan Hadden, "Citizen representative" in the LEPC and Professor of Public Policy in the LBJ School, "I had to undertake a huge campaign to get the LEPC started at all. I and Regina Schultz were the only non-government employees in the group."

The other "environmental representative" is actually a member of the Lower Colorado River Authority, a state-level water bureaucracy created by the Legislature - not an environmental group. "Environmentalists have not been involved," said Brigid Shea of Clean Water Action. "When I inquired about it, they mailed me a notice about a meeting but there was no follow-up, and to my knowledge they have not made a real effort to reach out to either community groups or environmental groups."

Despite the mandatory inclusion of media in the federal guidelines, no media reps were ever found for the Commission. The vice-chair of the commisson, a Motorola representative, and six other industry members form the largest single voting group, given the number of empty places around this theoretically inclusive table.

When we attempted to access chemical inventory information on several companies through the LEPC under the Community Right to Know portion of the LEPC's mandate, the sole staff person, housed in the Austin Fire Department offices, claimed that no one had ever asked for information like this before. More requests have come from developers and other people interested in assessing and purchasing property. The chemical inventory information which the LEPC has gathered lists only the total amounts of each chemical kept onsite without documenting the size and amounts in containment vessels. The difference between a leaking five pound cylinder and a leaking quarter-ounce cylinder of the highly toxic gas arsine is significant. Concerned citizens must ask the corporation for this information.

Right-to-Know versus Need-to-Know

Currently, detailed information on hazardous chemicals, a facility's response plan and worst case scenarios can only be obtained by calling the company. Companies are not required to share this with the public, and the information they must give to the fire department is protected from Texas Open Records disclosure under the "proprietary" information exemption.

The LEPC, under the law, should be able to make information on facilities freely available to the public. Citizen's access to information in not a priority of the corporate world, however. "We would be happy to make things available on a need-to-know basis," said one Motorola spokesman. "If a close neighbor came to the facility and wanted to know what was here, we would show them, but for somebody to lived thirty miles away, that would be a different idea."


Companies also protect plume maps from public disclosure, according to another spokesman, claiming terrorism, espionage and theft as the major concerns. Of several companies asked, most were willing to show reporters their documentation, but unwilling to allow the reports off premises. An IBM spokesman said, "as a matter of good practice, we have done some of our own risk assessments, but we cannot release them." Companies decide who needs to know what, and can present the material to a limited number of people in a fashion that reflects their own interests."

The LEPC should also be able to provide the public with an emergency plan for accidents concerning hazardous materials, as well as chemical inventories and other information. However, the Travis county LEPC emergency plan, which should coordinate emergency planning for the county as a whole and which was due 2 1/2 years ago, has not been done.

"I attempted to get emergency response maps and information from the LEPC," said Shea. "It seemed to be a kind of sleeping dog." The LEPC did not even demand the hazard assessments that companies regularly make available to the Fire Department. According to Hadden, "The big companies wanted to do hazard assessments. They were anxious for the LEPC to establish guidelines and criteria for liability. Aleshire didn't believe we could demand them. We wanted to do a risk assessment checklist. Aleshire thought that the county would be liable for low ranked companies suing it. No risk assessment has been done."

The LEPC, which might meet April 4, for the first time since 1989, has been silent while high-tech boosters encourage more chemical industries to locate in Austin. Call the LEPC at 448-8336 to confirm the meeting day and location, and tell them that you are watching.

When community groups in Austin have attempted to assess the risks from hazardous chemicals in their areas, they have been unable to find proper emergency plans. According to Antonio Diaz of the Texas Center for Policy Studies, a community organization near the Holly Power Plant in East Austin, traced the PCBs to old transformers in the plan. They arranged a meeting with plant officials. "At the initial meeting, people expressed dissatisfaction because the river where the plant is located is used by kids for fishing and swimming," said Diaz. "People at the power plant made a booklet for the community by the next meeting, but they didn't have an emergency plan. The LEPC should have elicited this from different facilities." Because the county did not require emergency plans from city and county facilities it could not draw up its own county wide emergency response plan.

Is There A Plan or Isn't There?

In lieu of its own plan, the county submitted to SERC the city's emergency plan. Because it did not outline provisions for portions of Travis County not within the City of Austin, it was not accepted. Rich Weigand, the LEPC vice-chair and Motorola executive admits that the LEPC has not created an adequate plan. "We habe to get a county-wide plan in place. The City has signed mutual-aid agreements with some outside fire departments, but not with all of them."

According to the head of hazardous materials in the Austin Fire Department, Carl Wren, "the city has mutual aid agreements with surrounding fire departments, but this excludes hazardous materials response." In other words, if a spill occurs on HWY 183 outside of town, no official agreement confirms the role of a professional hazardous materials team in clean-up or evacuation. While the Austin Fire Department will not refuse an emergency call, responsibility falls largely on the all-volunteer fire departments in surrounding towns.

The heart of an emergency plan, according to the Environmental Policy Institute, is hazard assessment which asks the fundamental question: "What chemical hazards do we have in our community and how severe are they?" By identifying hazardous chemicals, outlining vulnerable areas on a map, and analyzing the risk presented by each specific hazard, planners develop an overall picture of the risks to a given area. Risk analysis, the third part of the hazard assessment, looks at the likelihood of a release and the severity of its consequences. According to Susan Hadden, the city's plan is a good one, but she acknowledged that it is not based upon a thorough hazard assessment.

The LEPC is given broad powers under EPCRA to obtain from facilities all documents "necessary for developing and implementing the emergency plan," so that the LEPC can request from a company, for example, its safety audit and its own internal hazard assessment, and the LEPC can also conduct on-site inspections. Hazard assessment by a company generally includes worst-case scenarios for the facility complimented by plume maps which show how far gas might stretch across an area under various conditions.

While the LEPC does have an inventory of chemicals for the city, it does not have a risk analysis based upon worst-case scenarios, plume maps, or safety audits. Nor does the LEPC include a vulnerability analysis of transportation routes, althought two years ago this assigned as one of the projects of the Hazards Assessment Sub-committee.

Said Diaz, "We at the Center want to know what the LEPC is doing or not doing. We want to know the impact of toxics on communities of color, and want to use the LEPC as a way of gaining that information. Exxon has a plant off Springdale, and so do other petroleum companies. What safeguards are in place? What will be the impact on communities in the area? What are the demographics around these facilities?"

Making the Law Work for the People

While the LEPC in Austin slept, other LEPCs have successfully taken advantage of the "Right-To-Know" provisions in order to inform the community of hazards and pressure for changes in industry. The LEPC for Washington, DC obtained the hazard assessment from the local water treatment plant which documented that a large accidental release from one of the facility's 90-ton tank cars containing chlorine could result in a 40-mile toxic gas cloud. The attention generated forced the manager to make changes in facilty's storage of chlorine.

The LEPC covering Texas City, host to a large petrochemical industry, launched a community outreach program, including community forums, to communicate information on chemical hazards to the public. It also restructured the committee membership to provide equal community and industry representation.

In Baton Rouge, the LEPC published in the local newspaper a chemical cloud scenario involving phosgene, a chemical transported through Baton Rouge, that illustrated that an accident would require an immediate evacuation of 17 square miles. In Wahtenaw County, NJ, an annual inspection required by town's Right-To-Know ordinance discovered that 272 of 330 facilities had no secondary containment for chemicals, 146 had unregistered underground storage tanks, and 29 facilities had soil containment problems. Charles Griffith, chair of the LEPC commented, "our LEPC could have asked companies nice general questions and put together its emergency response plan without ever finding any of these problems." One wonders if Charles Griffith has ever met Bill Aleshire.

Houston's LEPC clearly demostrated the importance of hazard analysis and the potential for effective action by an LEPC. The results of its vulnerability analysis were so alarming that the fire chief suppressed it for five months. The LEPC's report discovered that "Extremely Critical Zones" covered much of the city. The chief explained that he did not release the report because he did not want to "unnecessarily alarm Houstonians." "My fear about the thing is that it makes the whole city look like it's vulnerable," he said, but then admitted, "I guess in some ways it is."

Yet, industry officials call the use of plume maps and worst case scenarios to inform citizens of toxic risks an alarmist scare tactic employed to create negative attitudes toward chemicals and industry. This might unleash what an official of USS Corporation calls "unbridled toxiphobic speculation and environmental emotionalism."

But as Fred Miller, national coodinator for Friends of the Earth writes: "No one told the citizens of Bhopal, Mexico City or Europe downwind from Chernobyl, what a worst-case accident could do to them. Like citizens everywhere, Americans seem to be living in blissful unawareness of some of the most terrible hazards to which they are exposed. For the vast majority, it is a case of 'uninformed consent,' which violates some of the most cherished rights to be secure in our homes and neighborhoods."

A spokesperson for Motorola in Austin stressed that the industry's technology has evolved greatly since the environmental and occupational health disasters of Silicon Valley during the 1960's and 1970's. Carl Wren of the Austin Fire Department also doubted whether high tech still poses a real threat of accidents of leaks involving hazardous substances. Companies have learned from their mistakes, the idea goes, and advances in technology have made possible state-of-the-art safety measures, significantly reducing the problems. For example, Motorola stores arsine, a highly toxic gas, in much smaller quantities than it did previously, and all storage containers are now triple walled and above ground to prevent leaks from contaminating the ground.

Great Leaps in Technology

However, while industry would like to push the history of environmental destruction in Silicon Valley into distant past, leaking underground storage tanks caused massive contamination at the facilities of IBM and Fairchild Semiconductor as recently as 1981. Since then, over 100 other toxic chemical spills have polluted Silicon Valley's environment. In Austin, companies claim that above-ground double walled storage tanks have solved these problems.

One representative referred to these and other changes as "great leaps in technology," however most of these technical improvements could have been implemented decades ago. IBM finished raising its storage tanks above ground only last year, according to a company representative, despite the fact that environmentalists have been insisting on this change since the 70s.

This kind of costly sensitivity to the environment and citizen health has only come about through the pressures of increased public awareness. An informed and mobilized network of communities demanded their 1) right to know the hazards in their neighborhoods and workplaces and 2) participation in decisions concerning these risks.

Some people argue that ordinary citizens don't have the expertise to understand chemicals or to distinguish between real or remote hazards. Experts have told us that the fear of toxics is irrational because automobile accidents and cigarette smoking pose greater risks than toxics in everyday life. But people are actually very rational about risk: the risks that anger and frighten people are the ones they are subjected to involuntarily and without their control.

The main problems facing the Travis county LEPC also faces LEPCs across the country. Federal law requires states and localities to gather information with few provisions for funding this work. Last year the federal budget for the right-to-know programs was only $28 million. States and localities receive training money but must borrow resources from other programs to finance right-to-know implementation. The Travis County LEPC is funded by the county, already strapped for money. And according to Judge Aleshire, some money was diverted to the LEPC from human services programs. The county's meager funds employ only one person in the city fire department to serve as the information clearinghouse of the LEPC.

Two states, Kansas and Ohio, have provided alternative means of support by requiring facilities to pay a filing fee that helps finance the work of the LEPCs. In Texas, companies pay a filing fee to the state since reports are filed with state agencies, but this money doesn't make its way back to the LEPCs.

Another way of providing support, of course, would be to involve the community through outreach programs. In Durham, North Carolina, the LEPC has generated enough interest that 40 or more people attend meetings and community members donate hundreds of hours of volunteer work. Publishing worst-case scenarios and plume maps in the newspaper might also stimulate interest from citizens about the risks they face. And public information about the risks of hazardous materials could exert pressure on facilities to reduce not only risk, but also the use of these chemicals.