“We don’t do that here.” The Challenge of implementing EPCRA in Oregon

Oregon.  To many people, it is synonymous with environmental activism.  Spotted owls, anyone? And yet, Oregon has failed to fully implement a federal law, The Emergency Preparedness and Community Right To Know Act of 1986, designed to protect people from toxic chemicals.  And this failure has put people around the state at risk.

It was March of 2010, and I had just been hired by Multnomah County as the Deputy for Planning and Preparedness in the Office of Emergency Management.  I asked a coworker where in the office we kept the LEPC (Local Emergency Planning Committee) plans.  “We don’t do that here,” he said.  I had to ask him a second time, assuming he hadn’t understood the question.  He replied, “Nope.  We don’t have a LEPC in Multnomah County.  We don’t have them in Oregon.”  I was stunned. How could that be?  Compliance with EPCRA (Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act of 1986, a federal law) isn’t optional.

But he was right.  Oregon really doesn’t comply with several provisions of EPCRA.

What is EPCRA?

On the night of December 2, 1984 over 2200 people were killed and many thousands more injured in a massive industrial chemical release from a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India.  On August 11, 1985 another release at a similar plant in West Virginia brought the risk closer to home.  These incidents pointed out the fact that there were many places where hazardous substances were being used, stored or transported close to where people live and work.  The people living and working in these areas were almost entirely unaware that there were coexisting with these substances.  And none had any idea about what the response plans for a release of these substances might look like.  This lead to the passage of the Emergency Preparedness and Community Right to Know Act of 1986 (EPCRA).

In short, EPCRA requires companies that use, store or transport certain quantities of specific chemicals must notify state and local public safety agencies about what chemicals they are using. They must also report any accidental release of these chemicals. The law also requires communities to have a plan that specifies what they will do if there is a leak. Finally, all this information must be made available the public. The intent is that local first-responders and the public will know where toxic chemicals are stored and what to do if they are accidentally released.

In addition, EPCRA specifies two committees to oversee this process.  The first is a state-level body called the SERC; the State Emergency Response Commission.  The SERC is appointed by the governor and includes a specific set of state agency representatives, statewide advocacy groups and industry representatives.  The job of the SERC is to coordinate the work of Local Emergency Planning Committees.  Local Emergency Planning Committees (LEPC) are the second body created by EPCRA.  This committee is usually formed at the city or county level and has membership that is similar to the SERC but more local.  The intent is that information be shared at the most-local level with the professionals and residents that need to know.

You can learn more about EPCRA here: http://www2.epa.gov/epcra/what-epcra

Around the country this system has worked.  It’s not fancy, and many LEPC’s are sort of lackluster and only do the minimum required to comply with the law.  But information gets out to people and they have the opportunity to do something with it.

But not in Oregon.  Here, the SERC is a ‘committee’ of one person, the State Fire Marshall.  Instead of a LEPC in every city or county, there is one LEPC the for the entire state, or there was until 2008.  Today there are 11 counties in Oregon with a LEPC in place.  Some of them are fairly robust; most don’t include representatives from all of the groups identified in EPCRA.

Come back next week when I explore how this state of affairs came to be and why this situation puts people at risk.