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We Need Better Hazardous Material Infrastructure

Updated: Mar 15

Hazardous, chemical waste isn't confined to top-secret military bases or industrial plants. It passes right by you on the highway. It's produced in businesses you frequent. Mundane products like paint and wood waste can become dangerous under certain circumstances and can be subject to federal, state and local regulations. 


Hazardous material (hazmat) infrastructure is a complex and vital system: one that surrounds you. 


When regulatory measures fail, the consequences can be disastrous, even fatal. As the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) states, "If released, hazardous materials may cause harm to ... the environment, critical infrastructure, and property," while also endangering "workers, transportation carriers, nearby residents [and] first responders."

For example, in 2013 a crude oil carrier train derailed and exploded near the Canadian town of Lac-Mégantic, killing 47 and leveling several blocks. The recent train derailment in Ohio greatly increased the presence of harmful chemicals in the area, causing widespread concern in the surrounding community. 


Thankfully, in recent years the number and severity of hazmat incidents in the U.S. have been declining, with two fatalities and 25 injuries in 2021. Still, these statistics leave out two major aspects of the problem.


First, non-fatal accidents still cause extensive property damage, amounting to roughly $53.7 million in 2021. Second, and perhaps more importantly, most of hazmat's negative effects are not as visible or immediate as train derailment. 


Many hazmat sites exist as contaminated locations waiting to be cleaned. Exposure to these areas can cause health problems, like lower birth weights and respiratory illness. Given that about 21 million Americans live within one mile of a Superfund site, it's urgent that we devote more resources to effective hazardous material infrastructure. 


Like every other public service program, this infrastructure system needs money and professionals to build, maintain and improve it, yet both are lacking. Nationally, our hazmat management was given a D+ by the American Society of Civil Engineers, and it took $1 billion from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to initiate clean-up efforts at 49 of its underfunded Superfund sites, which had seen an annual construction completion rate of under 25% for more than a decade. 


The shortage of expertise is even more pronounced on a local level. In 2016, the Oakland Fire Department, charged with overseeing approximately 800 hazmat locations, was even decertified by the state. It failed to meet inspection standards and allegedly lacked funds to pay its inspectors, which numbered three in total for a city with a population of 420,000.

It’s time we change that.


Starting with public awareness and education, we must demand that Congress and other state or local authorities put more resources into hiring inspectors, cleaning up contaminated locations and studying hazmat’s adverse health effects in greater detail. It is only then that we could ensure the safety of all Americans, especially those who are unable to move away from the country’s 1,300 Superfund and 450,000 Brownfield locations.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the individual author.


Sources


Bendix, Aria. "High Levels of a Hazardous Chemical Polluted the Air Weeks After the Ohio Train Derailment, An Analysis Shows." NBC News, 12 July 2023, https://www.nbcnews.com/health/health-news/ohio-train-derailment-hazardous-chemical-polluted-air-rcna93640


“EPA Announces Plans to Use First $1B from Bipartisan Infrastructure Law Funds to Clear Out the Superfund Backlog | US EPA.” EPA, 17 December 2021, https://www.epa.gov/newsreleases/epa-announces-plans-use-first-1b-bipartisan-infrastructure-law-funds-clear-out


GORDNER, JILLIAN, and Stephen D. Luftig. “I SUPERFUND UNDERFUNDED.” PIRG, 1 February 2021, https://pirg.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/FLP_FLE_SuperfundUnderfunded_1.pdf


“Hazardous Materials Fatalities, Injuries, Accidents, and Property Damage Data.” Bureau of Transportation Statisticshttp://www.bts.gov/content/hazardous-materials-fatalities-injuries-accidents-and-property-damage-data


“Hazmat Incident Guidance for State, Local, Tribal, Territorial, and Private Sector Partners.” International Association of Fire Chiefshttps://www.iafc.org/topics-and-tools/resources/resource/hazmat-incident-guidance-for-state-local-tribal-territorial-and-private-sector-partners


“Health effects of residence near hazardous waste landfill sites: a review of epidemiologic literature.” PubMedhttps://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10698726/


“Oakland inspection problems extend to hazardous materials.” San Francisco Chronicle, 12 December 2016, https://www.sfchronicle.com/bayarea/matier-ross/article/Oakland-inspection-problems-extend-to-hazardous-10789607.php


“Population Surrounding 1,857 Superfund Remedial Sites.” EPAhttps://www.epa.gov/sites/default/files/2015-09/documents/webpopulationrsuperfundsites9.28.15.pdf.

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