The owner of a Pennsylvania paint plant is facing fines of up to $25,000 a day for not providing authorities with a mandated list of chemicals and substances stored on site before fire struck his facility.
More than 100 firefighters from across the region fought the blaze for more than 10 hours May 14 and 15 at American Biodiesel Energy Inc. and North American Powder Coatings, in Erie, PA.
Fire crews were seriously hamstrung in their efforts, however, because they had no information on file from the businesses about what hazardous substances and chemicals were stored inside the 56,000-square-foot facility. Eventually, crews fighting the fire inside the building were ordered outside because of the danger, officials said.
‘You Have to Report Them’
“If you have these chemicals in certain threshold quantities and maximums, you have to report them to us,” Dale Robinson, the county government’s emergency management coordinator, said in an interview. “The reason for that is just like this scenario—so we know what’s there. The last thing you want is to put water on something that’s water reactive.”
|Facilities covered by Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA) requirements must submit an Emergency and Hazardous Chemical Inventory Form to several agencies yearly. Most states require the Tier II form.|
Hazardous substances also affect evacuation plans and other critical public safety decisions, Robinson noted.
If chemicals classified as Extremely Hazardous Substances are kept on site, the facility owner must pay a fee to the county and work with its Local Emergency Planning Committee to develop a comprehensive emergency management plan for the facility, Robinson noted.
In this case, none of that information had been prepared or provided to authorities, he said.
On the night of the fire, company owner Lee Akerly, 80, gave firefighters a hand-written list of chemicals that he said were on site. The list included ethanol, methyl hydroxide, toluene, sulfuric acid, dry lye and powder coating, officials said.
However, an emergency-management investigation conducted after the fire discovered at least one Extremely Hazardous Substance that was not on Akerly’s list: 36 containers labeled sodium methoxide, which alone should have triggered the reporting requirement, Robinson said Sodium methoxide is a highly caustic, volatile, toxic chemical compound used in making biodiesel.
“He didn’t report any of this stuff to us,” Robinson said. He said Akerly did say he had an internal spill response plan for the company, but that is not sufficient to meet state law.
Akerly could not be reached for comment Friday.
Robinson said Akerly told emergency management officials that the containers did not really contain sodium methoxide, as the labeling said, but had been reused to contain another chemical that was on the list. Akerly said he had written the name of the new chemical in water-soluble marker on the 36 containers and the information must have washed off in the fire.
“I’m not a judge or jury,” Robinson said. “But if that’s your story, more power to you.”
The reporting requirements are mandated by state laws enacted to comply with the federal Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act of 1986 (EPCRA), also known as SARA (Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act) Title III or Tier II chemical inventory reporting.
In Pennsylvania, the controlling law is the Hazardous Material Emergency Planning & Response Act of 1990 (Act 165), which requires facility owners to submit “material safety data sheets or chemical lists, emergency and hazardous chemical inventory forms and toxic chemical release forms to the Department of Labor and Industry.”
Extremely Hazardous Substances (EHS) must be reported to authorities within five days of being brought on site, the law says. Owners must pay a fee of $35 to $75 per chemical each year to the state’s Hazardous Material Emergency Response Account. EHS chemicals carry a $100 annual fee.
Violations of the law carry potential fines of $1,000 to $25,000 a day. How that fee might be calculated in this case is up to the country’s Local Emergency Planning Committee, which meets Aug. 12. The committee includes both business owners and government officials.
In addition, the state Attorney General’s office is weighing criminal charges against Akerly, but those seem unlikely at this point, officials said Friday.
Since the fire, the property has been condemned, and Akerly will have to deal with the state Department of Environmental Quality on the clean-up. However, he has told a local newspaper that he wants to re-open the biodiesel business.
Robinson said the LEPC was sympathetic to owners whose businesses had grown quickly and may not be aware of all of the requirements.
Still, he said, Akerly “went through an Environmental Protection Agency process to become a certified recycler of vegetable oil. I can’t believe he didn’t come across Tier II requirements.”
It is not clear whether the committee will fine Akerly, who has already lost his business, Robinson noted. “We don’t want to see a business leave our county,” he said. “But we don’t want to see people in our community get hurt.”
He urged business owners to check with their local emergency management agencies to learn about reporting requirements in their area. There are many exceptions to the laws, he noted.
On the other hand, Robinson said: “This is something that can potentially bite you in the butt if you don’t know about it.”