Schumer: Demands Improvements in Informing First Responders With Industrial Fires

February 23, 2012 Updated Feb 23, 2012 at 5:59 PM EDT

By WKBW News

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Schumer: Demands Improvements in Informing First Responders With Industrial Fires

February 23, 2012 Updated Feb 23, 2012 at 5:59 PM EDT

(WKBW release) Thursday, at the Erie County Emergency Services Training and Operations Center in Cheektowaga, New York Senator Charles E. Schumer called on the Environmental Protection Agency to work with Western New York factories to ensure that area residents and first responders are better protected in the event of an industrial fire.

According to a news release issued Thursday, Schumer urged the EPA to streamline and improve the reporting process under which industrial plants and businesses detail which chemicals are on their premises, so that local authorities and first responders are aware of risks in the event of a fire or other emergencies. By law, companies are required to provide, through the EPA, local officials and first responders with updated information about the types and quantities of hazardous materials they have on site. However, the process can be complex and the requirements are often unclear.

Schumer stated that the development of a straightforward EPA reporting process would make it easier for businesses to accurately, regularly and completely report the types and locations of chemicals within their facility, which would help first responders to develop the safest and most efficient strategies in the event of a fire at those facilities. Improving the system would also ensure that first responders can accurately assess the threat to area residents, so authorities can take proper precautions in the event of an emergency. Schumer’s call comes after several industrial fires in Western New York in the past year. In the wake of these fires, first responders and area residents received limited and conflicting information about the potential environmental risks due to burning chemicals and other materials.

“Our brave first responders put their lives on the line each day while responding to emergency situations and fires, and we must make sure that they have every tool in the chest to ensure their own safety, and the safety of Western New York residents and workers,” said Schumer. “Several industrial fires in Western New York have shed light on the fact that first responders often don’t have accurate information about the types, quantities and locations of hazardous materials that these businesses have on site, which puts the safety of the firefighters, the business, its workers, and local residents at serious risk. That is why I’m calling on the Environmental Protection Agency to take a more hands-on approach when it comes to ensuring businesses accurately and completely comply with their chemical reporting requirements, and also to streamline that process, so that Western New York businesses and plants understand and fully comply with the reporting system before it is too late.” 

Schumer was joined by members of the Erie County Hazmat Team, Cheektowaga firefighters, representatives of the Buffalo Fire Department’s Hazmat Team, and Fire Commissioner Garnell Whitfield as he announced his push to streamline the reporting requirements of chemicals in industrial plants. Schumer noted that without complete information it can be difficult for first responders to make proper scene assessments and critical time can be lost while fighting fires. Additionally, first responders need full and complete information in order to make sound decisions about evacuating residents or issuing orders for residents to stay inside.

The Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act requires facilities to submit an Emergency and Hazardous Chemical Inventory Form to the Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC), the State Emergency Response Commission (SERC) and the local fire department annually, listing which hazardous materials are stored on site. This requirement is implemented through the EPA, and companies must either provide a Tier I or Tier II form to meet these requirements.

Over the past three years, New York State has gone to an E-Plan system, in which companies can file their forms online and first responders, the LEPC and the EPA can have access. Schumer noted that in many instances in Western New York, first responders are met with sudden emergency situation at businesses and industrial facilities, often to find that the most recent Tier II form is unavailable, or not up-to-date on the E-Plan system. One such reason for this is that the guidelines and manner in which these companies must file these forms is often unclear and complicated. For example, only certain facilities are required to file a Tier II form instead of a Tier I form, and that decision is based on the quantity and type of materials that facility has within its plant and may also be dependent upon regional reporting requirements. Therefore, there can be confusion and discrepancy as to which facilities are required to file which forms, and often industrial plants and businesses are not aware of this reporting process until it is too late when a fire begins on site. As a result, during several fires in Western New York, first responders have not had a full list of all of the potentially hazardous chemicals on site, and in other cases they have known which chemicals are on the plants premises but have not known exactly where they are. Schumer noted that first responders have told his office that a full and accurate list of chemicals and their locations is a deciding factor in how they approach a fire situation. Given the impact on first responders and local residents’ health and safety, Schumer called on the EPA to take a lead role in improving the reporting system to ensure first responders are properly prepared when a fire strikes.

Schumer highlighted several instances in which first responders received conflicting or limited information during industrial fires in Western New York in the past year. One such fire occurred on July 17, 2011 at Niagara Lubricants. When first responders arrived on the scene at Niagara Lubricants, they did not have a complete picture of the potentially hazardous materials inside, and firefighters spent 17 hours pouring water and foam on the fire, which sent heavy black smoke and noxious fumes into the air. The EPA initiated a prompt investigation, and since that time Schumer has pushed the EPA to release the results of their investigation into the blaze, so that the community and local officials can understand where information was lacking and what precautions can be taken to ensure that firefighters have all of the information they need to most effectively battle a fire. Schumer also called on the EPA to use the lessons learned from the Niagara Lubricants fire to make improvements to the reporting system. First responders also told Schumer’s office that more information was needed to fight the Goldman Titanium fire that occurred last year.

Schumer stressed that improvements to this system are especially important in Western New York – where often times industrial facilities and residential neighborhoods are in close proximity to one another. In the summer of 2011, Stollberg Inc., in Niagara and Salerno Paint & Paper in Buffalo all experienced large fires, in addition to the fires at Niagara Lubricants and Goldman Titanium. While the Local Emergency Planning Committee and the fire fighters are making every effort to ensure the system is kept up to date, federal oversight is needed to strengthen and complete the effort. Schumer is urging the EPA to play a more active role in addressing the gaps in this information by providing a streamlined reporting process for companies, so that they have the tools they need to clearly understand the reporting system and its requirements. Schumer also noted the benefit of an annual EPA-hosted seminar ahead of the March 1st filing deadline for Tier II forms, and suggested that the agency send representatives to Western New York factories to ensure that those businesses are meeting safety requirements. Schumer also noted that it is important for the EPA to work with first responders to ensure that their forms provide the best and most useful information for their life-saving work. This will help ensure the safety of local residents, employees, first responders, and property.