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CSB Chairman Carolyn Merritt Cites “Serious Gaps” in Preparedness for Major Chemical Accident or Attack; Says Americans are “Vulnerable” in Testimony Before Senate Homeland Security Committee

Washington, DC, April 27, 2005 – In testimony today before the Senate homeland security committee, the chairman and chief executive officer of the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB), Carolyn Merritt, said that serious gaps in preparations for major chemical releases – either accidental or from an attack – have left Americans vulnerable, and called for more to be done by chemical companies, emergency responders, communities, and the federal government in order to save lives and property.

Chairman Merritt appeared on a panel called by the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, chaired by Senator Susan Collins of Maine, entitled “Chemical Attack on America: How Vulnerable Are We?”

Chairman Merritt praised Senator Collins and the committee for holding the hearing, saying, “We must be prepared to respond quickly and effectively to save every life we can and to limit the impact. The time for planning is now, not after a tragedy. I commend Chairman Collins her leadership and foresight in convening this hearing today before such a tragedy has occurred.”

In her testimony, Chairman Merritt said, “In the time we have been in existence, we have learned something very troubling. The incidents we have investigated at the U.S. Chemical Safety Board have revealed serious gaps in the preparations for major chemical releases by companies, emergency responders, government authorities, and the public. These gaps in preparedness leave Americans vulnerable.” Ms. Merritt noted that six major accident investigations by the Chemical Safety Board uncovered flaws in local emergency preparedness and response coordination.

Ms. Merritt’s testimony cites several examples of chemical accidents the CSB has investigated that revealed inadequate responses by police and firefighters, who were endangered by lack of equipment and improper procedures. The investigations revealed instances where company procedures were inadequate to prevent explosions or contain and control fires and toxic releases. In some cases, safety shutdown systems failed.

Noting that even modest-sized accidental releases were producing flawed emergency responses, she said, “The overall message is clear: a large-scale instantaneous toxic gas release is quite capable of causing thousands of casualties if the conditions are right and the release occurs near a population center. We have seen it overseas; we have seen it projected in computer models; and we could see it in the future here in the United States as the result of a terrorist act or perhaps an accident.”

Ms. Merritt recalled her December 2004 visit to India to a conference to mark the 20th anniversary of the chemical plant tragedy in Bhopal, which ultimately killed thousands of people and permanently injured more than 200,000.

“In our investigations,” she said, “the Chemical Safety Board regularly finds deficiencies similar to those at Bhopal at major incidents in this country – including the failure to prepare the public for chemical emergencies.”

She noted recent tank car chlorine release accidents killed ten people in South Carolina and four people near San Antonio, Texas. “The tragedy in South Carolina was not even a worst-case event since the gas release was not instantaneous but occurred over several days.” She added, “Clearly, if a major release occurred in a densely settled urban area, it would have the potential to cause large-scale casualties.”

Ms. Merritt discussed a release that occurred at a chemical repackaging facility in a St. Louis suburb which involved a faulty transfer hose connected to a rail car. Emergency shutoff valves failed, emergency protective equipment was not available to plant personnel, and the community’s volunteer hazardous materials team had never practiced at the site for such an accident. She cited other accidents in which the CSB found preparations for chemical emergencies were uneven and inadequate, including poor community notification, toxic chemical plants with no sirens, unprotected police going door-to-door in hazardous environments, inadequate fire department equipment, and lack of knowledge by neighboring residents on how to respond to the emergencies.

The hearing was scheduled to be webcast and subsequently archived on the following links: http://hsgac.senate.gov/index.cfm?Fuseaction=Hearings.Live and http://www.capitolhearings.org (audio only).

The CSB is an independent federal agency charged with investigating industrial chemical accidents. The agency’s board members are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. CSB investigations look into all aspects of chemical accidents, including physical causes such as equipment failure as well as inadequacies in safety management systems.