Statement of Mr. Timothy R. Gablehouse
Chair Jefferson County Local Emergency Planning Committee
Member of the Clean Air Act Advisory Subcommittee on Accident Prevention
1050 Seventeenth Street
Denver, C0 80265
Subcommittee on Health & Environment and Subcommittee on Oversight & Investigations
Testified Panel 1, Witness 4
TESTIMONY OF TIMOTHY R. GABLEHOUSE, CHAIR JEFFERSON COUNTY COLORADO LOCAL EMERGENCY PLANNING COMMITTEE AND MEMBER COLORADO EMERGENCY PLANNING COMMISSION
BEFORE THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES SUBCOMMITTEE ON HEALTH AND ENVIRONMENT AND SUBCOMMITTEE ON OVERSIGHT AND INVESTIGATIONS
February 10, 1999
Mr. Chairman and members of the subcommittees, I very much appreciate this opportunity to testify regarding the interrelated issues of emergency planning, emergency response and the public's access to information. Regardless of whether the question is terrorism or hazardous materials accidents, the burden and responsibility of preparedness and the initial "first" response is on the men and women who live in the communities of this nation. My comments today will focus on the needs and concerns of these people.
I come from a state that will not seek delegation of the Clean Air Act section 112r program. As with the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act, this means that the burden and responsibility of understanding these programs falls to the people at the local level. It is at this local level that Local Emergency Planning Committees operate. I have been a member of the Jefferson County Committee since it was formed in 1987 and have been its chair for almost four years.
In Colorado along with much of the nation the people that perform these functions are volunteers. Whether they are interested citizens, members of volunteer fire departments, or representatives of local businesses, these people are not compensated to perform these functions.
Today there will be testimony from representatives of the Chemical Manufacturers Association and fire departments from large communities. This is not our reality in Colorado and the mountain West. If emergency preparedness was always conducted in conjunction with highly responsible, experienced and responsible companies, and by well-trained and equipped emergency response organizations, we would not face the debate currently before us on whether or not the public at-large deserves access to accident risk, prevention and response information.
Our reality is companies large and small that do not understand or practice appropriate safety measures. Our reality is volunteer fire departments without the specialized equipment or training to safely respond even to structure fires and much less hazardous materials incidents. Our reality is local governments not having the sort of information they need for land use planning decisions that reduce the risk of injury and property damage resulting from chemical accidents.
We can only learn and improve by looking outside our community. It is important to understand the techniques used by other communities and businesses similar to ours. It is important to understand what risks have been identified and described in other communities. It is important to understand the prevention and emergency response programs practiced by businesses similar to ones in our community.
We use this information not only as an aid in planning and preparedness. We use this information to aid local businesses in complying with regulatory programs. We use it to aid local governments in land use planning and zoning decisions. We use it to inform the public about risks in the community and the roles they can play in reducing risks.
Recently all of this information came into play in the debate surrounding the siting of a new school in Congressman Udall's district. Not far from the proposed location is an industrial area. This industrial area is not within any city, nor is it within the boundaries of any fire district.
The Local Emergency Planning Committee had to file suit against one of the businesses in this area in order to enforce its requests for information. The information was finally supplied, but that is not the end of the story. The business was not sophisticated in preventing accidents nor in emergency response procedures. They could not provide us with descriptions of the risks they presented to the community. They could not even provide adequate information or training to their employees.
The LEPC used the Internet, as we frequently do, to educate ourselves about the risks presented by the chemicals at this business. We educated ourselves about the possible accident scenarios this business presented and the implications of these risks to the proposed school. Without government information from the Internet this task would have been difficult if not impossible.
Many of the people providing testimony today seem to believe that there is no legitimate reason for members of the public to know about the accidents scenarios, prevention plans and emergency response procedures practiced in the rest of the country or even the next county. In my part of the country it is the public that is performing the function of accident preparedness and prevention. It is the public that are members of volunteer fire departments and local emergency planning committees. There is no valid distinction between members of the public at large and the people that perform these functions.
Let me turn now to Section 112r of the Clean Air Act. While I do not want to minimize the terrible consequences of a terrorist incident, I do not believe the risk that Section 112r information will be useful to a terrorist is significant. On the other hand, we face an actual and much greater risk from chemical accidents. The very real potential for such incidents is a daily proposition.
I serve on the EPA advisory subcommittee that considered these issues. I listened and studied the statements of the security experts that testified before that group. I have listened to the statements of the industry members concerned with this issue. I applied my own experience in the fields of emergency response and law enforcement.
The fundamental truth, that is sometimes lost in this debate, is that facilities are responsible for their own security and accident prevention. The study I have conducted of this issue leads me to the conclusion that there is nothing in the 112r program and potential posting of information on the Internet that interferes with a facility's ability to perform these functions. The information submitted under the 112r program does not describe how to cause a chemical accident. The information does not describe the security systems that facilities have in place.
On the other hand these same facilities expect responders to come when they have accidents. They expect the community to understand and appreciate their accident prevention efforts. They expect the community to tolerate whatever risk of a chemical accident the facility presents in return for the benefits that facility provides to the community. They expect the public to participate in emergency response and absorb the institutional costs of this response.
Credibility is necessary to satisfying these expectations. Without credibility all that happens is the never ending debate of whether or not a company is too risky or inappropriate for the community. This lack of credibility leads to the breakdown of neighborhoods and the inability of a community to cooperate to better its situation. Representative DeGette and I suspect all of the members of the Subcommittees have been witness to the sort of community fights over the siting or expansion of an industrial facility that comes from a lack of trust and a failure of credibility.
EPA has decided not to post the off-site consequence information on the Internet. The LEPC is prepared to live with that decision only because the full information will still be available at the state and local level. Even so, what will happen is that any number of people will fill the vacuum created by EPA's action by posting their own educated speculations or inflammatory guesses on the Internet. Instead of focusing on accident prevention and response the LEPC will be drug into the process of correcting misinformation.
I believe that EPA has and will continue to reach reasonable compromise positions on the question of public access to information under the section 112r program. It is important to recognize that this information is useful to the public and is important to the reduction of accidents. The information is desired and any vacuum will be filled. I believe that it is more dangerous to promote misinformation than it is to take the risk that someone will misuse accurate information.
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