Open government group publishes information about risks to public health from chemical facilities

OMB Watch posted updated information on the risks of over 140 dangerous chemicals from facilities nationwide. The information can be found on the website of the Right-to-Know Network. -DB

OMB Watch
Press Release
October 29, 2009

WASHINGTON, D.C. — OMB Watch today posted updated information about the risks of serious public harm posed by thousands of chemical facilities nationwide. The risk management plans of approximately 14,000 facilities that handle more than the threshold amounts of 140 dangerous chemicals are publicly available through the website of the Right-to-Know Network (RTK NET), at

Sean Moulton, Director of Federal Information Policy at OMB Watch, said, “By updating this data, RTK NET gives citizens information for protecting their families and communities. Unfortunately, the government has failed to meet its obligation to make this information available, and RTK NET must fill this disappointing gap.”

Based on its authority under Section 112(r) of the Clean Air Act, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requires facilities to submit a risk management plan, or RMP, describing the facility’s program to prevent accidental releases of harmful chemicals and mitigate the severity of releases that do occur. The plans include analyses of the potential offsite consequences of a worst-case accidental release, a five-year accident history, a release prevention program, and emergency planning. The law requires this information be available to the public.

According to EPA, “The RMP information helps local fire, police, and emergency response personnel (who must prepare for and respond to chemical accidents), and is useful to citizens in understanding the chemical hazards in communities.” However, EPA places severe restrictions on the public’s access to the RMP information. The government does not allow online access to RMPs, requiring citizens instead to visit one of the federal reading rooms across the country. The EPA also restricts the number of plans a citizen may view each month and prohibits photocopying.

“The public needs this RMP information so they can demand that facilities and EPA do a better job,” said Brian Turnbaugh, OMB Watch’s environmental right-to-know policy analyst. Turnbaugh added, “There are many cases where safer chemicals and processes could be substituted, thereby reducing the risks posed by an accident at one of these chemical plants. The risk management plans provide the public with tools to encourage these sensible steps.”

RMP data have proven crucial to encouraging the use of safer and more secure technologies at chemical facilities. Recent studies used RMP data to determine that 284 facilities in 47 states have dramatically reduced the danger of a chemical release into nearby communities by switching to less hazardous processes or chemicals or moving to safer locations. RMP data were used to identify opportunities for conversions to safer technologies at the 101 most dangerous facilities, each of which threaten roughly 1 million people or more in surrounding areas.

The Risk Management Program, operated by EPA’s Office of Emergency Management, was criticized by the agency’s own inspector general in a report published in February. In its investigation, the office of the inspector general found that EPA had failed to track which facilities had not submitted their RMPs or the required updates. EPA inspections and audits of high-risk facilities were also lacking. According to the inspector general, “Accident data suggest uninspected high-risk facilities are more than five times as likely to have an accident than uninspected lower-risk facilities.”

RTK NET is currently the only easily accessible public source for much of the information included in the RMPs. Since 1999, RTK NET has provided free, 24-hour online access to the RMPs while allowing users to search by various criteria. For example, a user may search for RMPs for all facilities within a particular state or zip code, or a user may search for RMPs covering a particular chemical. The offsite consequences analyses, however, remain available only at the reading rooms.

In addition to the numerous search features available on RTK NET, users may search the RMP database for the top facilities and the top states in terms of accidents in the last five years before they last reported that involved fatalities, the top 20 facilities for injuries, the number of people evacuated, and the top 20 for reported property damage.

The plans must be revised and resubmitted every five years, as well as when a facility makes certain changes to its processes. New facilities must submit a completed RMP as soon as they acquire a covered chemical above the threshold quantity.