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What The People Of Passaic NJ Didn’t Know Almost Killed Them

Will DEP & Chemical Industry Get A Pass On Huge Risks Revealed By Passaic Chemical Fire?

A Bhopal Toxic Catastrophe Can Happen Here

Kuehne Chemical, Kearny, NJ. Accident would kill over 100,000 people. Note chemical industry “Responsible Care” PR logo. Is it responsible to pose this kind of fatal threat to 12 million people living in an urban area?

Kuehne Chemical, Kearny, NJ. Accident would kill over 100,000 people. Note chemical industry “Responsible Care” PR logo. Is it responsible to pose this kind of fatal threat to 12 million people living in an urban area?

These totally unacceptable risks are concentrated in NJ’s poor and minority communities, yet the highly touted NJ environmental justice law does not apply to chemical safety issues, e.g. the DEP Right To Know, Pollution Prevention, or Toxic Catastrophe Prevention Acts.

They built a giant power station
And It ticks each night as the city sleeps
Or maybe seconds from annihilation, yeah
But no one stopped to think about the people
Or just how they would survive
Yes we’ve almost lost Detroit, this time, yeah, this time
When it comes to people’s safety,
money wins out every time. ~~~ We Almost Lost Detroit, Gil Scott-Heron

The people of Passaic NJ and surrounding towns just dodged a deadly bullet. Actually, it was far more than a bullet, it was a bomb.

How can millions of pounds of a deadly chemical be allowed to be stored in a densely populated city?

And it is not the first time –

I was around in 1995 when the Knapp Technologies explosion (hit link for the NY Times story) killed four workers, where an investigation revealed that the Whitman Administration’s rollback of DEP Right To Know (RTK) regulations put workers, emergency responders, and the public at risk.

Just prior to that disaster, the Whitman DEP rolled back chemical safety regulations despite warnings from DEP experts that there would be a “significant increase in the number of potential fatalities“.

Specifically, a July 29, 1994 memo from Assistant Commissioner Nagy to Commissioner Shinn compared DEP’s strict standards with weaker EPA requirements. It warned of a significant increase in the number of potential fatalities if DEP rolled back NJ standards to federal EPA minimums. This was not some tree hugger warning, it came from Shinn’s own Assistant Commissioner (complete memo found on page 126 of Whitman Senate confirmation transcript):

“Industry (e.g., CIC and NJBIA) would obviously prefer backing off to the EPA thresholds. ….However, the increases made by EPA on adoption were so large (averaging some 18 times the TCPA values with 33 of the 60 substances common to both lists assigned from 5 to 167 times corresponding TCPA values) that they are not technically justifiable in an area as densely populated as New Jersey where substances are generally handled on small sites, and would correlate with a significant increase in the number of potential fatalities.

Got that? The Whitman DEP policy would result in an “Increase in the number of potential fatalities”. That warning was issued 9 months BEFORE the Knapp Technologies disaster. In addition to ignoring those TCPA warnings, Whitman  slashed New Jersey’s Right to know list by about 2,000 chemicals and adopted the weaker federal EPA RTK reporting thresholds, based on Whitman’s Ex. Order #27 federal consistency policy.

DEP’s “Worker and Community Right To Know Act” regulations explicitly acknowledge (but under-regulate) fire and explosive risks:

“Unusually Hazardous” means likely to explode due to a highly volatile nature, a propensity to produce toxic fumes, or a tendency to react with water or common firefighting chemicals and any other property which the Department of Environmental Protection determines will make a substance an uncommon danger to firefighters and the surrounding community in the event of its exposure to a fire.

While DEP regulations severely under-regulate the chemical industry and fail to adequately inform and protect the public, they do protect corporate interests and even establish criminal penalties for whistleblowing and/or leaking certain information:

7:1G-6.16 Penalties for Unauthorized Disclosure of Trade Secret Information

(a) Any officer or employee of the State, contractor of the State, physician or osteopath, or employee or a county health department, county clerk, or designated county lead agency, local fire department, or local police department, or any other person who has access to any confidential information, and who willingly and knowingly discloses the confidential information to any person not authorized to receive it, is guilty of a crime of the third degree.

But still, nothing essentially has changed at DEP for almost 30 years since the Knapp disaster. Gov. Murphy even retained the Whitman/Christie federal consistency rollback policy (see Murphy’s Ex. Order #63).

Twelve years ago, I again wrote this to warn of those risks:

Although the public knows virtually nothing about it, this is not a problem of NJ’s industrial legacy. NJ still is saturated with deadly dangerous chemical manufacturing and storage facilities, typically located in densely populated areas: (NJTV News)

“Shelter in place is what I grew up in as ‘duck and cover.’ The idea that you could somehow shelter in place and be safe from these risks is ludicrous on its face,” Wolfe said. …

These facilities are part of a chemical industrial complex that stretches for about 20 miles along the banks of the Delaware River. Paulsboro is a community that’s pretty much in the middle of that. We were at Paulsboro High School, about a football field away from those facilities.

“The industry has created maps showing where there is called a ‘kill zone’ where in the event of an accident like this, had that been a chlorine tank, literally hundreds or thousands of people could have been killed, instantly,” Wolfe said.  ~~~NJTV News, 12/4/14

The chemical fire in Passaic involved chlorine.

Very recently, on December 9, 2021, I again wrote about the NJ Right To Know and other chemical safety regulatory programs. I highlighted the fact that because DEP no longer issued annual public reports, that the people of NJ were put at risk, see:

The DEP has failed to prepare and publicly release annual Reports of the critically important data on manufacture, use, storage and discharge of toxic and extraordinarily hazardous chemicals collected under the NJ Worker and Community Right to Know Act, the Toxic Catastrophe Prevention Act, and the Pollution Prevention Act. DEP had annually released public reports of that data for decades, prior to 2010….

These failures at DEP have gone unchallenged by any Legislative oversight or media coverage.

Environmental groups who used to work on these pollution and corporate accountability issues have abandoned the field for corporate foundation funded “greener” pastures.

The public has no way of knowing about any of this. […]

V) Toxic Catastrophe Prevention Act

These are the “Bhopal” facilities, were an accident literally could kill thousands of people nearby.

In fact, DEP TCPA regulations require a chemical facility to prepare a map that show’s the “kill zone”.

They hide the “kill zone” behind the Orwellian bureaucratic euphemism “off site consequence analysis.

Thousands dead is some “consequence”, eh?

Do you live in a “kill zone”? Does you child go to school in a “kill zone”?

Don’t ask DEP – and they won’t tell 

These totally unacceptable risks are concentrated in NJ’s poor and minority communities, yet the highly touted NJ environmental justice law does not apply to chemical safety issues, e.g. the DEP Right To Know, Pollution Prevention, or Toxic Catastrophe Prevention Acts.

As I warned on 11/16/20 (see: Questions For Senator Booker and EJ Advocates At NJ Spotlight’s Roundtable On NJ’s “Landmark” EJ Law

The NJ EJ law does not apply to greenhouse gas emissions & climate adaptation

It also does not apply to “extraordinarily hazardous substances” (i.e. to facilities subject to NJ’s Toxic Catastrophe Prevention Act and federal Clean Air Act Sect. 112 Risk Management Planning requirements).

It also exempted contaminated sites & air pollution sources that emit less than 100 tons/per year (including industrial emissions of hazardous air pollutant (HAP)s, many of which are carcinogens and create unacceptable risks in far lesser quantities).

There needs to be much stricter DEP regulatory oversight and stricter standards (like fire prevention and suppression in old industrial buildings that are fire hazards) for these kinds of unacceptable chemical risks, including banning some locations where storage of highly toxic chemicals is nearby dense residential neighborhoods.

I sent to this note to Bergen Record reporter Yellin, who did a local fire department focused story about how Passaic dodged a bullet, asking for followup to investigate the broader issues and the need to reduce these unacceptable risks:

Greetings – just read your story.

Perhaps you might want to do followup on the DEP angle, as the stored chemicals were subject to DEP Right To Know (RTK) program requirements and DEP Emergency Management was on scene. Both program have not been subject to media or public scrutiny in a long time and the last time it was (Paulsboro toxic train derailment), the National transportation Safety Board issued a scathingly critical report on their performance. You might be surprised by the qualifications (NONE) of the DEP Chief of Staff who oversee the DEP Emergency Response program. And the fact that DEP no longer releases annual RTK Reports and data on chemical use etc.

Were their RTK plans up to date? When was last DEP inspection? What is the compliance and enforcement history here? Were local emergency responders aware of RTK hazards and fire prevention and emergency response? Are sprinklers and otters fire prevention measures required by DEP RTK regulations?

Here is an excerpt on my initial take:


“First off, it looks like the chlorine Pool Trol Chlorine Stabilizer by Qualco, Inc. (Cyanuric acid CAS #108-80-5) is a chemical regulated by NJ DEP’s Right To Know program.

5. Fire Fighting Measures Suitable Extinguishing Media: Use water spray, alcohol-resistant foam, dry chemical or carbon dioxide Special Hazards Arising from the substance or mixture: Carbon oxides, Nitrogen … additional processing occurs. Provide appropriate exhaust ventilation at places where dust is formed. For precautions, see section 2.2. Storage: Keep container tightly closed in a dry, well ventilated place.

Second, the DEP Emergency Response program was severely criticized by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) in how it responded to the toxic train derailment in Paulsboro, NJ, see:

A lot of the NTSB criticism involved various communications and management failures.

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