Nearly 3,500 Iowa facilities reported storing hazardous chemicals in 2012, but state officials say they don’t know how many other organizations should be reporting and have no way to levy fines against firms that don’t follow the law.
“It is largely on the honor system,” said Johnson County Emergency Manager Dave Wilson. “But if (organizations) don’t file and something bad happens, they will be crucified. Most companies don’t want to face that.”
Private and public facilities are required by federal law to provide an inventory of potentially dangerous chemicals stored on their properties. In Iowa, these Tier II reports are filed by March 1 each year to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, county emergency managers and local fire departments.
Knowing where large stores of chemicals are located can help first responders be more prepared for fires, spills and other situations.
“These are protracted, complicated scenes,” said Greg Buelow, public information officer for the Cedar Rapids Fire Department. “They need to be done correctly.”
Errors found, enforcement lax
The Tier II system gained attention after the April explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas. Soon after firefighters arrived, 40 tons of ammonium nitrate exploded, killing 11 first responders, Reuters reported. The company had filed a Tier II report, but some first responders and state Homeland Security officials said they did not know about the presence of the ammonium nitrate.
Reuters found dozens of errors in Tier II reports across the country and identified several facilities that failed to report altogether.
But the most common problem was lack of oversight from federal and state officials, Reuters reported.
“Iowa doesn’t do fines,” Elonda Bacon, coordinator of the Iowa Tier II program, told The Gazette. “I just give them guidelines mostly.”
Bacon works with county emergency managers to keep tabs on new companies that might store one of 500,000 possible chemicals in quantities large enough to require a Tier II report, she said. Extremely Hazardous Substances must be reported at 500 pounds or over, while other chemicals don’t require Tier II reports until they reach 10,000 pounds, she said.
When Bacon receives the reports, she spot checks them for spelling and names of chemicals she doesn’t recognize.
The state has no way to know which companies should be filing Tier II reports or whether companies have received exemptions from the EPA, Bacon said.
The DNR doesn’t do site visits to make sure the reports are accurate. If the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency visits the facility for another compliance reason, they will check Tier II reports, Bacon said.
“If the EPA were to see a facility without a Tier II report, the EPA could fine them,” she said.
Reports help first responders
Corridor emergency managers and fire officials use Tier II reports for planning, drills and response.
Iowa City Fire inspectors use Tier II reports to ensure a facility has the proper layout and fire-suppression system for chemicals stored on site, interim Fire Chief Roger Jensen said.
The department flags chemical storage sites in the 911 system so if emergencies happen at those locations, first responders are warned as they head to the scene, Jensen said.
“It might even cause us to summon additional resources,” he said.
Cedar Rapids firefighters got a call early May 5 for a hydrochloric acid leak from a semi-trailer at Cargill Corn Milling, 1710 16th St. SE.
Hydrochloric acid is highly corrosive and can damage skin and eyes. Inhalation for even a short period can cause irritation to the eyes, nose and respiratory system, the EPA reported. Cargill, which produces corn syrup and animal feed products, filed a Tier II report for storing hydrochloric acid, along with 23 other chemicals.
As hazmat crews worked to remove the acid from the 46,000-pound tank, law enforcement blocked a 1.5-mile radius around the scene. The leak was contained and no one was hurt.
The CRFD charges a fee to facilities that store large amounts of chemicals, Buelow said. The Tier II Emergency Recovery Fee, started in 2008, pays for hazmat training and specialized equipment, such as foam used to fight chemical fires.
The city collected nearly $300,000 in the year that ended June 30, up slightly from the $287,700 collected in fiscal 2012. The fee is based on the number and volume of chemicals.
“There is a financial incentive for companies to store fewer chemicals on site,” Buelow said.
Fertilizer companies top list
In Linn County, 170 facilities filed a Tier II report for 2012. ADM Corn Processing filed the most reports with 77 for the plant at 1350 Waconia Ave. SW. PMX Industries, Danisco (DuPont) and Penford Products each filed reports for at least 30 different chemicals.
The most common chemicals stored in Linn County include sulfuric acid, diesel fuel, chlorine, lead, propane, gasoline, nitrogen and anhydrous ammonia.
In Iowa, about 3,450 facilities completed Tier II reports for more than 7,000 chemicals. Fertilizer companies including Crop Production Services, of Hopkinton, and Van Diest Supply Co., of Webster City, top the list for number of chemicals stored on site.
The proximity of large chemical caches to population centers in the Corridor worries Wilson, the Johnson County emergency manager.
“It’s nice we report it, but the issue is having a little higher responsibility on these high-consequence chemicals,” he said.
Eighty-five Johnson County facilities filed Tier II reports for 2012, with Procter & Gamble having the most chemicals on site with 53, the state reported. The University of Iowa was the next highest with 33.
Wilson and other emergency responders said most large organizations have staff safety officers or consultants who know how to store chemicals safely. These officials make sure facilities are designed properly, have emergency procedures in place and file accurate and timely reports.“The liability, the insurance issues, that’s really the bigger stick,” Wilson said.