Stopping Toxic Accidents
Local health and safety agencies must get tough with companies that fail to handle toxic materials with the utmost care. Until they do, there will be more spills like the one in the City of Commerce that forced evacuation of thousands of area residents. More frequent inspections and more fines against people who fail to correct potential hazards, even closing down companies until they respond, should reduce the number and severity of accidents. That’s all easy to say. Doing it is a vastly complicated task.
Government may be better at reacting to emergencies than at preventing them. A Los Angeles city ordinance requires companies that store, transport or process hazardous materials to give a list of those substances to the Fire Department so that crews responding to emergencies aren’t acting in ignorance. And the South Coast Air Quality Management District can press charges and levy $25,000 fines against companies that release hazardous chemicals.
What about prevention? The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to identify all firms in the county that work with chemicals and try to ensure that they are following county regulations. But the Grow Group Inc. plant, where last weekend’s spill occurred, had already been cited for mishandling hazardous wastes after a spill last month. Government agencies must keep after companies that they cite, and this takes inspectors with authority to act.
Here, at least three agencies conduct inspections: the Air Quality Management District, the Fire Department and the Health Services Department. Each may need more inspectors who are trained to recognize chemical hazards. Each agency should examine the sanctions that it can use when it finds potential hazards; if the fines aren’t stiff enough to provide sufficient deterrent, if the inspectors can’t shut down particularly bad offenders, the agencies should go to the Legislature, the City Council or the Board of Supervisors and ask for the authority. Jailing especially delinquent plant owners might drill the point home.
It’s a big job. State law now requires that companies using significant amounts of chemicals must prepare risk-management plans for review by local agencies. The Los Angeles Fire Department estimates that about 8,000 companies may be involved. Half have prepared the plans, and the department earlier this summer sent notices to most of the rest reminding them of the requirement. Now the department is getting 20 to 30 plans a week that still must be reviewed.
In many cases fire departments are the main line of defense. They could use help, but industry lobbyists have fiercely resisted giving the air-quality district the kind of authority that it would like for inspections to try to prevent accidents.
There’s one bright spot. Gov. George Deukmejian has received, and should sign, AB 3205, which would give the air-quality district the authority to check plants suspected of mishandling chemicals if they are located near schools. The measure, sponsored by Assemblywoman Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), would also require local authorities to consider the proximity of schools and chemical plants when approving either new school construction or factory permits.
People ask government to protect them against the unseen dangers of hazardous chemicals. Last weekend’s incident should serve as a warning that more aggressive action remains to be taken to clear the air.