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Op-Ed: How Do We Protect Our Children, Communities Against Toxic Chemicals?

Gov. Christie's administration has repeatedly failed to ensure that counties and municipalities provide public access to emergency response plans, as required by federal law

Debra Coyle McFadden and Molly Greenberg
Debra Coyle McFadden and Molly Greenberg

In kindergarten, when the fire alarm went off, we were told what to do. Line up, follow the exit signs, and walk to our assigned meeting place outside the school. We had an emergency plan in case there was a fire. Now as adults responsible for our families and communities, we find the threats are greater and the information we need to be prepared is missing. 

Decades ago, at a time when chemicals were not monitored, explosions and releases would happen regularly in highly industrial communities, such as the Ironbound neighborhood in Newark. Residents rose up and demanded that workers and communities had a right to know what the chemicals were and what they needed do to protect themselves. 

This led, in part, to a now 30-year-old federal policy. The Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA) requires facilities to report annually on the amount of toxic chemicals that have been released into the air, water, or on land. Furthermore, the law required the creation of the Toxic Release Inventory, which serves as a publicly accessible document covering more than 650 reportable chemicals that may pose a threat to public health or the environment. 

EPCRA also requires that local governments formulate chemical-emergency response plans utilizing Local Emergency Planning Committees (LEPCs). In New Jersey, each municipality and county is required to have an LEPC. They are intended to help communities prepare to respond in the event of a chemical emergency and to increase the public’s knowledge of the presence and threat of hazardous chemicals. These local plans are then to be reviewed by the state. It is the responsibility of the governor to ensure counties and municipalities are in compliance with EPCRA. And yet, active LEPCs are few and far between and public access to emergency response plans (ERPs) is often denied. 

"Access Denied," a new research report issued by the NJ Work Environment Council found that Gov. Christie's administration has repeatedly failed to ensure that counties and municipalities provide public access to ERPs, as required by federal law. These plans include crucial preparedness information, such as an outline of emergency notification procedures and evacuation plans. This information can save lives. A recent explosion in the Ironbound contributed to our staunch resolve to demand community emergency-preparedness plans to protect us from daily chemical threats. 

In the Ironbound section of Newark’s East Ward, there are six facilities that are regulated by New Jersey under the Toxic Catastrophe Prevention Act, which use or store extremely hazardous chemicals in large quantities. Last February, one of the facilities, Elan Chemical Corp., was cited by OSHA for 17 serious safety and health violations. Kris Hoffman, director of OSHA’s Parsippany Area Office was quoted in a February 4, 2016, press release, “The company’s failure to comply with OSHA’s Process Safety Management standard could result in a chemical release, as well as a serious fire or explosion.” 

Presently, members of the Ironbound community find ourselves once again in the same struggle of 30 years ago, still demanding public transparency and accountability about what chemicals are in our community and what to do in case of an emergency. The Newark Energy Center natural gas plant (formerly the Hess Plant), was built and completed within the past year; a brand-new design granted a 400 percent increase in its chemical use and storage capacity, yet this plant still has no publicly available emergency preparedness plan. We note with sadness the great irony that an energy plant is keeping the community in the dark. 

Communities are again speaking out and demanding publicly available emergency preparedness plans for all potential chemical threats. Ultimately, the state is responsible for ensuring compliance with EPCRA. The governor's failure to ensure public oversight required by law has serious consequences. 

If we are taught and encouraged to plan and prepare for emergencies as children in school, then why not as adults for our communities? The time has come to get to work. The health and safety of our communities and our future are at stake.

Molly Greenberg, MSW is the environmental justice policy manager at Ironbound Community Corp. Debra Coyle McFadden is the assistant director of the New Jersey Work Environment Council.

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