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Paulsboro Investigation – Silo Logic, Not Safety Logic

Official investigation report would provide a credible and powerful tool for seeking legislative and regulatory reforms to strengthen overall chemical safety

Billions Spent on Terrorism, But Chemical Responders Don’t Have Batteries

I just got a note from a friend in Paulsboro, I assume in response to our request for an accident investigation, advising me that “Hey, the local emergency plannning and EHS requirements don’t apply to railroads you dummy – and the DOT requirements are less stringent!”

Duh! That’s the whole point of the exercise.

Maybe I never made that point clear at the outset, so let me illustrate with examples.

Case 1: Suppose you were taken to the hospital emergency room, unconscious and bleeding profusely from the head after being hit by a baseball bat.

Now suppose that instead of sending you to the CAT scan and calling a neurologist, they sent you for blood tests and to a podiatrist. You suffer irreversible brain injury and are a vegetable.

Case 2: suppose you had a heart attack or stroke and collapsed on the sidewalk. A neighbor calls 911. You are located in Town A. The nearest ambulance and hospital in Town A is 40 miles away. But just over the border in Town B, there is a hospital just 1 mile away.

The 911 dispatcher calls the Town A ambulance corps. You die 15 minutes later on the sidewalk.

Case 3: A final example: Suppose the initial incoming 911 calls in the Connecticut school massacre were vague – something about an emergency with windows broken in the chemistry lab. Assuming it was an explosion,  the first responders were the fire Department and explosive experts, instead of police SWAT units. 20 more kids get killed as the firemen wait for police.

Get it?

In other words, it is obvious that how a situation is perceived determines how it is responded to.

So the questions become:

Is that perception based on the primary facts and criteria that should be considered?

Is the response tailored to the correct perception?

Now, let’s apply that logic to the Paulsboro toxic train wreck.

The primary risks were from toxic release, air dispersion, human exposure, and health effects of a toxic chemical.

Does that have anything at all to do with navigable waters, trains, or bridges?

The primary expertises required to respond to a toxic air release are chemistry, toxicology, air dispersion modeling, air sampling, and risk assessment and risk communication. Those experts are employed by US EPA and NJ DEP.

Does that have anything to do with the Coast Guard’s mission and expertise? With the railroad company?

My key objective in requesting the IG investigations was to force the government to explain exactly the facts they considered and the criteria they applied in first emergency response and in managing this incident.

But it was not just a train accident. The scope of the investigation needs to be broadened to look up and downstream and consider where the vinyl chloride was manufactured, where is was going, and the regulatory requirements for safety that apply from cradle to grave – an entire “industrial ecology” that poses not only acute risks from accidets, but 24/7 ongoing risks from tons of daily chemical emissions.

Was the bridge just the  weak link in a dangerous chain? Are chemical companies given adequate incentives to reduce risks?

Jut think about the recent case of the mother who was driving dead drunk the wrong way on the Taconic Parkway and killed lots of people. The investigation of that accident was not limited to the Parkway or the vehicle, but considered what the woman did the night before; what she ate in the morning; how, where, and when she got the alcohol; when/where she drank it; whether their were prior signs of alcoholism or drunk driving; and whether her husband should have allowed her to drive that morning.

We need a similarly broad look at vinyl chloride and overall chemical safety regulation.

The investigation report, I’m sure, would document serious flaws in the overall regulation of chemical safety – from prevention and preparedness, through emergency response and cleanup, to federal, state, and local agency jurisdiction and responsibilities.

In turn, an official government accident investigation report would provide a credible and powerful tool for seeking legislative and regulatory reforms to strengthen overall chemical safety.

I assume that you catch my drift. So let me go into a little more detail to put a finer point on it.

There are a patchwork of federal, state and local requirements that apply.

So, think back to our 3 examples above, and keep in mind that the driving factors in decision-making should be science and public health, not what are commonly referred to as bureaucratic silos.

Are we driven by science and public health in how we regulate overall chemical safety? Was the emergency response to the Paulsboro disaster driven by science and public health?

Here are the 4 primary regulatory programs (silos) that are involved:

  • Chemical Facility Risk Management requirements
  • Local Community Emergency Preparedness and Response Planning 
  • Railroad Safety
  • Emergency Response Framework

Ask yourself: do your lungs know the difference or care about whether you were exposed to a chemical released by a train car, truck, or a tank at a chemical facility?

Why is 10,000 pounds of vinyl chloride regulated very differently at a  facility versus on a rail car? Why is 9,999 lbs. any less hazardous than 10,000 lbs?

Are costly regulatory requirements at chemical facilities being dodged by keeping facility inventories below regulatory thresholds by shipping more product by rail and truck instead of storing it on site?

Are chemical companies playing games and increasing overall system risk by shipping chemicals (just in time inventory) to increase profits or to avoid regulation of on site storage?

Which government agency has the relevant expertise? Was that agency in the lead and making safety decisions?

Why was the railroad and their consultant allowed to play any role? (particularly given the fact that the railroad was a responsible party and had liability at stake and the consultant has a checkered record.)

Why is there little integration between chemical facility, transportation, and local emergency planning?

What risk levels drive evacuation? Who makes those calls and on what basis?

Can we do more to reduce chemical risks and do better to regulate the entire lifecycle and system?

These are just some of the questions I want an investigation to answer.

Hopefully, a lot of gaps, loopholes, and flaws will be identified by the Report and become the basis for reforms to prevent a future disaster that could be much worse.


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