HazMat Planning: Know What’s Traveling Through Your State’s Backyard

Transportation of hazardous chemicals is critical to the sustenance and growth of inter- and intra-state commerce. Hazardous chemicals, some extremely hazardous, are transported using highways corridors, pipelines, rail, and waterways in every state of the continental US. While movement of these chemicals is a necessity, safety of the communities adjacent to transportation routes and safety of the workers engaged in handling these chemicals is so important.

Consider two widely-used chemicals—ammonia and chlorine. Ammonia is widely used to make fertilizers, in chemical production, and as a refrigerant at food processing plants. Chlorine is used in paper production and for water and waste water treatment. However, both chemical gases can be harmful if inhaled in unsafe quantities. Last year, a maintenance worker at a chicken processing plant was killed when he inadvertently dismantled a machine that contained ammonia to cool the meat. A dozen other workers were hospitalized last fall when exposed to ammonia leaking from a damaged rail tank car. The most common incidents involving chemicals occur during the loading and unloading at chemical facilities or water treatment plants.

The key to achieving the right balance between the need to transport chemicals and providing adequate protection to people is having a comprehensive view of what chemicals are moving along what routes, and determining the potential risks that these chemicals pose.

While it is common to simply study the hazardous materials markings on vehicles carrying chemical shipments on the state highways and Interstates, this method is not comprehensive and does not include details such as origins and destinations or quantities being shipped. Emergency managers want to know which chemicals are travelling through their counties and where, the risks these chemical pose to the surrounding communities, the response capacities that local responders have, and the right training and exercises to enhance their preparedness for hazardous materials incidents.

IEM recently completed a series of regional studies of chemical shipments, including ammonia, chlorine, and sulfuric acid, to and from chemical facilities in a particular region of a state. The study components include mapping chemical shipments, conducting risk assessments and identifying potentially affected populations. Ultimately, it is intended to provide the state with a foundation for a cyclical hazmat transportation planning process that includes Local Emergency Planning Committees (LEPCs), county emergency planners, chemical suppliers, transportation shippers and other federal, state and local stakeholders.

These kinds of regional hazardous material planning studies provide state and local emergency managers, responders, and decision makers with the information they need to achieve a high level of preparedness for any hazmat incident that may happen within their jurisdictions. A comprehensive view of the commodity flows allows for identifying community risks, response capacities and gaps, and development of appropriate mitigation strategies. It is important that responsible state and local agencies take a fresh look at how they currently approach hazardous materials planning, and how a more regional approach can benefit them.


Author: David Willauer, Senior Transportation Planner