“We Don’t Do That Here” – Part 3

“We Don’t Do That Here” – Part 3.

In Part 1, I discussed the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act (EPCRA) and suggest that Oregon has failed to successfully implement this important law.  In Part 2, I discussed in detail how this failure puts people at risk.  In Part 3, I will look at where Oregon is today.

Where are we now?

I attended the Multnomah County LEPC (Local Emergency Planning Committee) meeting on June 13th.  A successful LEPC would have twelve to fifteen people representing the stakeholder groups identified in EPCRA (local elected officials, police, fire and EMS representatives, public health and hospital staff, environmentals groups and members of the media and general public) in attendance.  They would review individual site plans that were due to be renewed or otherwise needed adjustment.  An update from the Outreach Committee would details what efforts had been made over the last quarter to contact and educate people living and working near chemical sites about the risks they face and how to be better prepared.  At this meeting, 10 people came, all of them representatives of industry save one lone soul from the Environmental Protection Agency.  The focus was on how to get more businesses to participate in the LEPC and how to create an emergency plan.  There was no mention of public outreach and no members of the public were there.  This is not a successful LEPC.

There are 10 LEPCs in Oregon, covering 11 counties but leaving 25 without this valuable resource..  Most of these LEPCs are like the one in Multnomah County; barely functional and not focused on sharing information with the public about chemical hazards in the community.  There is still no SERC (State Emergency Response Commission) as intended under the law.  Oregon is still failing to implement EPCRA in 2014, 28 years after passage of the act.

Getting on the right track?

In 2009, the State Fire Marshal’s Office decided that the way the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act (EPCRA) had been implemented in Oregon needed to change.  By late 2010, this change effort was in full swing.  I was the  Deputy for Planning and Preparedness in the Office of Emergency Management for Multnomah County.  My office received a letter in the mail from the  Office of the State Fire Marshal (OSFM) inviting us to a meeting to discuss the formation of  Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC) for Multnomah County.  During the few days after that letter arrived, I took a number of phone calls from confused and curious businesses and emergency managers.  They had all kinds of questions: What is a LEPC? Do I have to participate?  What sort of work will this committee do?  Alas, I had very few answers for them.  Although I had eight years of experience working with a LEPC in Michigan, I was as much in the dark as anyone regarding the specific purpose of this meeting.

Several problems were immediately evident to me.  First, the presentation contained inaccurate information about who should serve on a LEPC.  Second, misleading information was presented about the liability protection that is extended to members of the LEPC.  And third, the presentation encouraged the creation of “All-Hazard” plans focused on all disasters at the expense of a focused approach on chemical planning and community outreach.

Problem 1: Who should serve?

The staff from the Office of the State Fire Marshal (OSFM) indicated during the presentation that all users of Extremely Hazardous Substances (EHS) must serve on the LEPC.  This is incorrect.  The language in EPCRA is very clear; representatives of certain groups should serve on the LEPC, not every member of every group listed in the legislation.  Yes, all EHS users must comply with the site plan and chemical reporting provisions of EPCRA, but they don’t need to serve on the LEPC or attend all its meetings.

Problem 2: Liability protection?

Presenters at the meeting indicated that businesses participating in the LEPC would receive some sort of liability protection from the state if they had a chemical leak.  This is wrong.  In most states, individuals that serve on a LEPC have some protection from liability for the plans they create similar to that extended to government planners.  However, in no case would an organization that had an accidental release receive liability protection from the state.  This is a gross misunderstanding of the law.

Problem 3: All-Hazard planning?

When EPCRA was passed in 1986, local emergency planning was not very far advanced.  So in addition to planning for chemical spills, EPCRA has some provisions for doing more comprehensive emergency planning.  Since 1986, local emergency planning has become much more sophisticated.  FEMA has required local emergency management programs to cover a broad spectrum of hazards for many years.  As a result, LEPCs today generally focus on the community outreach and public education aspects of EPCRA because local emergency plans are handled by the local emergency management agency.

So like the person that wakes up from a coma after 20 years, OSFM went around the state encouraging the creation of local LEPCs and suggesting that they focus on broad ‘all-hazard’ emergency plans as if it was still 1986.  Local emergency managers, who in most states lead the LEPC and are its biggest advocates, were angry that they had not been contacted before OSFM started holding these meetings.  Why would the LEPC do general emergency planning?  Isn’t that what the local emergency manager does?  As a local emergency manager, I felt alienated by the way these meetings were designed and rolled out.

Moving Forward

Despite my misgivings about the process, I worked hard to help the individuals from Multnomah County who wanted to form a LEPC.  In the end, I wasn’t able to do much good.  The committee moved ahead under the flawed guidance issued from the OSFM.  I stopped attending the meetings, delegating that job to another person in my office.  Because I felt like the core requirements of EPCRA were not going to be met, it was hard for me to recommend to others that they attend.  And today the Multnomah County LEPC is floundering.

A new beginning? Unlikely…

Right now, the OSFM has convened a work group to recommend changes to how EPCRA will be implemented in Oregon.  Unfortunately, the work group does not include representatives from all stakeholder groups identified in EPCRA  and does not include experts with experience working with LEPCs.  This work group is unlikely to be successful given these challenges. The track record of failure since they assumed responsibility for EPCRA in 2005 leads me to believe that OSFM does not have either the credibility or the capability to successfully manage this change process.  Until EPCRA is successfully implemented, Oregonians are more likely to be injured or killed in the event a chemical disaster.

Comments, thoughts, or have information to share?  joe.partridge@genevieve-consulting.com