State Gets Tough to Guard Health in Toxic Accidents
The corner gas station will have to obey it. The school next door will have to plan for it. Fire departments will have to install computers to keep up with it.
It is California’s new, little-known toxic chemical disclosure law, hailed by state officials as the toughest legislation of its kind in the nation.
Sponsored by Assemblywoman Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) and signed into law by Gov. George Deukmejian last year, the law hits industry and local government with a two-pronged prod to prepare for toxic accidents.
It will force hundreds of thousands of businesses to release detailed inventories of their potentially dangerous chemicals, and it will require those companies and local officials to make emergency evacuation plans for the public in the event of an accident.
State officials say the law is a crucial step in protecting against health threats posed by toxic fires in Anaheim and Thermal and the killer chemical accident in Bhopal, India.
“This is the most broad and far-reaching legislation of this area that exists today,” said Gerald Schimke, chief of the state Office of Emergency Services planning division.
Under the law, any business that handles 55 gallons, 500 pounds or 200 cubic feet or more of a potentially harmful liquid, solid or gas must give local officials annual lists of every chemical on hand.
Los Angeles fire officials estimate that 20,000 to 40,000 businesses served by the county Fire Department will have to turn in lists every year. Another 45,000 to 55,000 will have to do the same in the City of Los Angeles.
“We can exclude the neighborhood beauty shops and barbershops, but gas stations to oil refineries will have to do it,” Los Angeles County Fire Department Capt. Mike Idol said.
All of California’s counties and most cities and fire departments will be required to draw up emergency response plans, including evacuation plans in the event of an accident.
The law has teeth too. It imposes penalties of up to one year in prison and a maximum fine of $25,000 on companies that fail to report spills of potentially harmful chemicals to local officials and the state Office of Emergency Services.
Parts of the law are vague and confusing, however, and to educate business leaders in the intricacies of the law, Schimke has been crisscrossing the state, offering question-and-answer sessions to the often-confused.
“I think we’re trying to avoid a paper dragon that is going to eat us all up,” Schimke told about 50 members of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce in a recent meeting. “We hope to put out the standards soon.”
In Sacramento, Schimke and his staff are scrambling to put together guidelines clarifying the law.
One problem in assembling the guidelines is the lack of a list of chemicals covered by the law. State officials said they purposely did not include such an inventory because it could fail to list some hazardous materials or wastes and would fail to address the problem of mixtures and new chemicals.
There is also the problem of guarding trade secrets.
The powerful California Manufacturers Assn., a lobbying group representing 800 companies and more than 70% of the industry in the state, opposed the bill when it was in the Legislature, saying public access to their inventories would ruin them.
But legislators worked around that problem by requiring fire departments to delay the release to the public of any lists for 30 days to allow the company to seek a court injunction and hearing.
It will be up to a judge to decide whether trade secrets would be compromised by the publication of the list.
Brad Hayes, spokesman for the association, said most businesses have begun to realize that the law will help them.
Firefighters are more cautious about responding to fires when they fear that burning chemicals are spewing toxic smoke; and if they are informed in advance of the inventory, they will be less likely to balk at the assignment, he said.
Orange County’s hazardous materials department head, Robert Griffith, called the law “enlightened self-interest.”
“When businesses saw people picketing in front of Larry Fricker (after a toxic fire at the Anaheim pesticide warehouse forced more than 7,000 to flee their homes last year), they realized (that) if they were going to be able to continue to operate in this area, they were going to have to cooperate.”
Orange County, which has approved an even stiffer law of its own, estimates that 5,000 businesses will have to submit biannual inventories to a central computer that will cost $300,000 to operate.