“We Don’t Do That Here” – Part 2

Part 2 in a series about the challenges of implementing the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act in Oregon

In Part 1, I reviewed the basics of EPCRA (Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act of 1986) and suggested that significant parts of the legislation were not implemented in Oregon.

So what?

A key part of EPCRA is designating local planning districts.  Instead of creating local planning districts at the county or regional level as was done in nearly every other state, Oregon designated the entire state as *one* planning district.

 Yes, you read that right; instead of a LEPC (Local Emergency Planning Committee) for each city or county, there was only one LEPC that covered the entire state.

In fact, the SERC basically served as the LEPC, cutting out an entire level of review and oversight.

 One LEPC for the entire state is hardly local.  But does that even matter?  Well, yes.

This lack of local planning and local citizen involvement are the most critical shortcoming of EPCRA implementation in Oregon. Around the country, elected officials, first responders, medical professionals, environmental groups, media, and industry are are specifically required under EPCRA to be represented on a LEPC.  Bringing all these groups together to share information and create plans is innovative and creates real value.

How did this happen?

When EPCRA was passed in 1986, many states chose to add responsibilities outlined in the law to an existing group rather than create an entirely new commission.  Oregon took this route, assigning the existing Interagency Hazard Communication Council (IHCC) to act as the SERC (State Emergency Response Commission) for Oregon.

From there, things went wrong almost immediately.  A key responsibility of the SERC is to designate planning districts.  As noted above, instead of creating local planning districts at the county or regional level as was done in every other state, the SERC designated the entire state as *one* planning district.  Also, the SERC basically acted as a LEPC for the entire state as well, removing one layer of checks and balances from the plan review process.

And then things get worse. In 2005, the state legislature disbanded the IHCC, and all it’s duties were transferred to the State Fire Marshall.  Instead of creating a new, representative board to carry out the responsibilities of the SERC, the Fire Marshall chose to act as the SERC.

Again, you are reading that right; one person took on all of the responsibilities outlined for an entire committee that, under the law, should contain a very diverse membership.

That means by 2005 Oregon had one person assigned to do the work envisioned under EPCRA for dozens of committees and hundreds of people without any of the local input that makes the work effective.

In short,of the three key elements of EPCRA (chemical inventory and release reporting, accidental chemical release planning, and public education and outreach) two were simply not being done in Oregon at all.  As a result, people are living, working and going to school near places where extremely hazardous substances were being used and stored.  Outreach is not being conducted to let people know about the existence of these materials.  Plans are not made to deal with releases at specific sites. Local people are not engaged in a process to plan for an accidental chemical release.  As a result people near these facilities are at greater risk.

In 2009, something changed.  The State Fire Marshal’s office started to encourage counties to form LEPCs.  However, the way that decision was made and how it was carried out did not have the best outcome.  Come back next week for Part 3 when I will look at what went wrong and why Oregon is still struggling to implement EPCRA today.