In January, a spectacular fire at a magnesium recycling plant in Garfield Heights served as a reminder that all around us, every day, industries and small businesses are handling hazardous materials and waste. State officials say most of the time they do it well. But with more than 20,000 permitted facilities in Ohio and only 60 state inspectors for hazardous waste alone, the job of oversight is overwhelming. Regulators rely on industry to follow the rules. But critics say more is needed, including stronger regulation and stronger enforcement. ideastream's Karen Schaefer has this report.
There's not much left at the site of the former Garfield Alloys recycling plant in this small industrial park in Garfield Heights. Smoke-charred windows and piled heaps of rubble are silent testimony to a magnesium-fueled fire that raged here for two days back in December. State fire marshalls traced the start of the fire to workers opening a new drum of magnesium, but labeled it an accident. And Ohio EPA officials say, despite previous violations, the plant was largely in compliance with hazardous waste regulations.
So how do incidents like the Garfield Alloys fire fall through the cracks? It starts with oversight. The regulation of hazardous substances is a complex tapestry of overlapping regulatory agencies. Hazardous substances themselves are divided into two different categories. Hazardous waste is the stuff that comes out of the pipe. Hazardous materials are the raw goods that go into manufacturing. Harry Sarvis oversees hazardous waste from cradle to grave for the Ohio EPA.
Harry Sarvis: What we oversee in my division are companies that actually generate the hazardous waste. And then we have a smaller universe of companies who dispose of this hazardous waste, who treat it in certain ways, or who store it on site for a certain period of time.
Those companies are known as permitted facilities. Sarvis says there are 18,000 to 20,000 permitted facilities in Ohio.
Harry Sarvis: The rules are out there, the companies have to comply with the rules and they then document that they have. And what Ohio EPA will come in to do is inspections.
But Sarvis has only about 60 inspectors statewide. So they're not going to every facility every year. But he says most companies do play by the rules. Those who don't get closer scrutiny and can be fined or even referred to the attorney general's office for criminal litigation.
That's hazardous waste. Hazardous materials are governed by another program of the Ohio EPA, the Right-to-Know program. Director Jeff Beattie says the program's been around since 1986.
Jeff Beattie: This program deals with what chemicals are being used or stored at the front end of the process. There is a specific list of what we refer to as extremely hazardous substances, such as ammonia, chlorine is on that list.
And then, says Beattie, there are the chemicals labeled as hazardous.
Jeff Beattie: Something like diesel, gasoline, paint, one-one-one-trichloroethane. And there is no list for hazardous substances, because if there was a list, you're probably talking about 60,000-plus potential chemicals.
Beattie says companies that use any of these materials in bulk must file a chemical inventory with local emergency planning committees - or LEPC's - in every county. It's the job of the LEPC to put together an emergency plan that gives first responders the heads up that there's a chemical on site that needs special handling. In the case of the Garfield Alloys fire, local firefighters already knew to expect magnesium, which explodes on contact with water. But Beattie admits not all emergency planners are working at the same level. And he says the groups are being squeezed by new demands for anti-terrorism measures. Stu Greenberg has been a member of the Cuyahoga County LEPC for fifteen years. He heads Environmental HealthWatch, a non-profit group that tracks public health issues.
Stu Greenberg: Chemical plant safety in any particular community depends on there being people in that community who have the resources and the time and the energy and the skills and the capability to research chemical threats and then put pressure on companies.
Greenberg agrees with state officials that most companies do a good job of managing their hazardous chemicals. But he says it's in the nature of industry that accidents will happen. Greenberg says it was the chemical plant explosion in Bopal, India that spurred the U.S. to develop the Right-to-Know program. But he believes regulation is still incomplete.
Stu Greenberg: It's missing strong regulation that prescribes safety features. And it's missing strong enforcement. It depends too much on voluntary measures.
Harry Sarvis with the Ohio EPA says his agency is looking at adding hazardous materials regulation to existing oversight of hazardous waste. But both Greenberg and Paul Orum of the national Right-To-Know advocacy group believe the ultimate answer to preventing accidents goes beyond regulation.
Paul Orum: The biggest hole in our view is that there is no requirement that companies that use extremely hazardous substances in large amounts that they look for safer technologies or safer forms of those chemicals such that people would no longer be at risk off-site and workers would be at less risk on-site.
Orum says new proposed federal legislation - the Chemical Safety Act - would require industries to seek out safer technologies. That's what the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District did on its own. They chose to replace dangerous chlorine with strong bleach for treating wastewater. Advocates like Orum say safer technology can be costly up-front, but usually saves money in insurance costs and regulation over the long run. In Cleveland, Karen Schaefer, 90.3.