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Chemical Safety: Emergency Responses

Chemical Safety: Emergency Responses


When the United States as a whole, or any portion or property of the federal or state governments, is threatened by a chemical hazard, a host of agencies go into action. Communities, neighborhoods, and localities are also encouragedand in some cases requiredto develop their own emergency response plans. In the event of a chemical threat, communities are protected by provisions in the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA). Passed by Congress in 1986, EPCRA establishes guidelines whereby federal agencies assist local communities in the event of a toxic chemical spill or related incident. EPCRA also provides a framework for action both by citizens and state governments.

There are numerous federal offices assigned to handle threats involving the release, whether intentional or accidental, of hazardous chemicals. Most notable among these is the Coast Guard National Response Center, the first point of contact for information on hazardous-waste spills and a host of other threats to the environment or infrastructure. Within the Department of Defense, the U.S. Army and Marines both have forces designed to respond to chemical threats, as do a number of other departments of the federal government. Likewise, Washington oversees civilian-run installations, such as the Atmospheric Release Advisory Capability, to monitor chemical and other threats. These and other agencies are discussed elsewhere; in the present context, the primary concern is the local, civilian response to chemical hazards.

EPCRA provides a response plan. Motivated by concerns raised by the disaster in Bhopal, India, where in 1984 some 2,000 people lost their lives due to an accidental release of toxic chemicals, Congress passed EPCRA. The latter established requirements for federal, state, and local governments, Indian tribes, as well as for industry, with regard to emergency planning and "community right-to-know" concerning toxic chemicals. In addition to emergency planning and emergency release notification, EPCRA addresses hazardous chemical storage reporting requirements and toxic chemical release inventories.

Under the provisions of EPCRA, each state governor appoints a state emergency response commission (SERC). The SERCs have in turn designated a total of about 3,500 local emergency planning districts nationwide. For each of these, the SERC appoints a local emergency planning committee (LEPC). Under the guidance of the SERC, the LEPC develops a community emergency response plan

designed to identify threats, establish workable emergency procedures, assess preparedness, train local response teams, and take steps to maintain supplies and schedules in preparation for any possible threat.

Federal assistance. In the event of a terrorist attack involving hazardous chemicals, guideline provisions direct that local authorities should establish an incident command system that may eventually become a unified command involving federal authorities. Under such circumstances, the Federal Bureau of Investigation is usually designated the lead federal agency. Meanwhile, the Federal Emergency Management Agency acts as the lead office for coordination of federal support to state and local personnel. Also involved are the National Response Team, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Department of Health and Human Services, and Department of Defense.

In accordance with the federal response plan, a national contingency plan for response to disasters, federal agencies are grouped into one of 12 functional areas for emergency support functions (ESFs). For example, EPA, which is heavily involved in oversight regarding EPCRA compliance and preparedness, falls under ESF 10, Hazardous Materials. EPA personnel work to determine the nature of the hazardous substance released, and follow up with environmental monitoring, decontamination, and long-term cleanup of the affected site.



The EPCRA Compliance Manual: Interpreting and Implementing the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act of 1986. Chicago: American Bar Association Section of Environment, Energy, and Resources, 1997.

EPCRA: Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act. Chicago: American Bar Association Section of Environment, Energy, and Resources, 2002.

EPCRA Section 313 Questions and Answers: Section 313 of the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act, Toxic Chemical Release Inventory. Washington, D.C.: United States Environmental Protection Agency Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics, 1999.


RCRA, Superfund, and EPCRA Call Center. <> (January 29, 2003).


Coast Guard National Response Center
Homeland Security, United States Department United States, Counter-Terrorism Policy

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