Environmental Response: DEQ Protects Public from Toxic Chemical Releases

By Neil Taylor

I am an environmental scientist in the Division of Environmental Response and Remediation (DERR) at DEQ. The part of my job that I enjoy most is working in the state’s Emergency Planning and Community-Right-to-Know (EPCRA) program.

EPCRA was established by Congress after the 1984 release of the highly toxic pesticide methyl isocyanate into a shantytown of hundreds of thousands of sleeping people that had grown up around a Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India. The heaver-than-air chemical hugged the ground and exposed over 500,000 people to the poison, killing thousands and injuring and causing premature death to tens of thousands more. Just nine months later, on the morning of August 11, 1985, a cloud of toxic gas was released from Union Carbide’s sister pesticide plant in Institute, West Virginia, sending 135 people to the hospital.

Citizens were outraged that some companies refused to release information about the chemicals released, previous releases, and the chemicals the facilities were using. Many emergency-response agencies were also denied this critical planning and response information. Because of this public outcry, Congress passed EPCRA.

Under EPCRA, facilities are required to report their chemical inventories and chemical releases to the State Emergency Response Commission (SERC) and to the Local Emergency Planning Committees (LEPCs). All this information is available to the public. In Utah, the SERC is composed of the Director of DEQ and the Commissioner of the Department of Public Safety.

My job is to work with Public Safety to help LEPCs get all the help we can provide to them and help the committee that advises the SERC and the SERC to function effectively. I also receive chemical release reports from industry and enter them in a database for follow-up and public disclosure.

There are many chemical emergency-planning-related issues, both locally and nationally, that the SERC and LEPCs deal with:

  • Reactive chemicals transported in large volumes by rail near communities.
  • Reactive chemicals stored in large quantities near communities that may not know the chemicals are present.
  • A federal, state, or local government entity that occasionally has trouble coordinating preparedness and response actions.

I work with others at DEQ, the SERC Advisory Committee, and Public Safety to identify chemical emergency planning or response issues that need to be addressed by the SERC. We then get the issues before the SERC Advisory Committee. The Advisory Committee is composed of members of the public, industry representatives, LEPCs, health departments, and others. The Advisory Committee works to get a full understanding of the issues and then prepares recommendations for action by the SERC. The SERC makes the final decision on state action. However, the “rubber meets the road” within the LEPC, which prepares the local response plan and makes sure responders and the public are informed.

An informed public and responders working in planning and response partnership with industry is vital to protecting the public from toxic chemical releases. I encourage you to contact your county emergency planning agency to see how you can get involved in your Local Emergency Planning Committee.

Mercury Spills

Neil Taylor

Want to know if hazardous chemicals are present in your community, and if so, what they are? Contact your city or county emergency management agency or call DERR at 801-536-4100 and ask to speak with Jennifer Nelson.

I have worked in the Division of Environmental Response and Remediation for 31 years. When I’m not responding to spills, I enjoy photography, astronomy, and genealogy.