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A Terrible Burden

A chemical fire in Anaheim has forced the evacuation of about 9,000 people in three cities. It has burned into its fourth day. And firefighters still don’t know what chemicals--some explosive, some poisonous--they are dealing with.

That is a terrible burden to put on them. The least that governments can do is make sure that in the future firefighters will have an inventory of the hazardous materials that are stored in a community before they are asked to plunge into the unknown--as were Anaheim’s forces.

Without such knowledge, firefighters are in personal jeopardy, and their ability to protect the public from chemical fires and spills is hampered.

As of now, no state law requires producers or users of large amounts of chemicals to tell local governments what they have in stock and where it is. Only a handful of California cities and counties have ordinances that do require companies to report the location, quantity, kind and health risks of all chemicals being used and stored. Los Angeles is moving toward a similar requirement.

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Anaheim has no such law. If it had, firefighters presumably could have planned their response to the chemical fire more quickly.

The lesson of Anaheim should make it easier for that city and others to override the opposition from industry that is mobilized at every mention of a disclosure law for hazardous materials. Industry has fought full disclosure of its chemical stockpiles, arguing that the information must be kept confidential to protect trade secrets and to avoid leading burglars and even terrorists to the chemical supplies.

Public health and safety needs take precedence over such concerns. Public agencies must know what chemicals are in the community and where they are stored. And residents have a right to know what potential hazards they face.

Assemblywoman Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), plans to speed hearings on her bill, AB 2185, that would, among other things, require the inventory and reporting of hazardous materials in all communities.

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Such disclosure laws are needed. If cities and counties won’t enact them, federal and state officials must. The fire in Anaheim was termed by one official as “Orange County’s worst environmental emergency.” It was dangerous and disruptive, and it is a wonder that it was not much worse. It will be, somewhere and someday, unless public officials insist on keeping better track of chemicals in their communities.


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