- Preplanning for emergencies that could arise from the presence of chemicals in the community
- Cooperation and coordination between state and local officials, the facilities that have chemicals on site, and others
- The public’s right to know about the presence of chemicals in the community, and releases of chemicals
In December 1984, a tank exploded at the Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India. Hundreds of thousands of people in the surrounding community were exposed to methyl isocyanate gas and other chemicals that were released. Over two thousand people were killed immediately, and by the end of two weeks, the estimated total was eight thousand. In the years following the disaster, thousands more died of gas-related diseases. The government estimated that over half a million people were injured by the explosion and its aftermath.
The Bhopal catastrophe raised concerns around the world about the hazards presented by toxic chemicals to nearby populations. To reduce the risk of such a disaster in the United States, Congress enacted the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA)1 in 1986. Although officially part of the Superfund Act, EPCRA is commonly discussed as a stand-alone statute.
As its name suggests, the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act seeks to empower communities to protect themselves with respect to hazardous chemicals in their midst. Whereas most federal environmental acts regulate activities that pollute or otherwise directly affect the environment, EPCRA works by fostering informed environmental involvement by many sectors of society.
The act is intended to protect public health, safety, and the environment by
- Mandating public disclosure of information on storage, handling, and releases of toxic chemicals; and
- Improving emergency planning for, and response to, accidental releases of hazardous substances.
There are two categories of substances, subject to different requirements.
- An extremely hazardous substance (EHS) is defined by an official list that includes over 350 substances. The criteria EPA uses in designating an extremely hazardous substance are toxicity, reactivity, volatility, dispersability, combustibility, and flammability. The emergency planning and notification requirements of EPCRA apply only to extremely hazardous substances.2
- Hazardous chemicals are a much broader group, consisting essentially of any chemical for which the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act) requires a safety data sheet. It encompasses all chemicals (including EHSs) which are physical hazards or health hazards. (The act carves out a few exceptions from this definition, including household products and products routinely used in agriculture.) The reporting requirements of EPCRA apply to all hazardous chemicals.3
EPCRA is implemented by the EPA, with the required participation of state and local governments. The act imposes requirements on facilities using or storing regulated substances to disclose information and to participate in contingency planning. EPCRA has four primary components:
- Emergency planning
- Data collection and reporting
- Release reporting
- Toxic Release Inventory
EPA offers assistance to state and local governments in emergency preparation and response, including educational resources and technological assistance.
EPCRA imposes planning responsibilities on state and local governments. In addition, responsibilities are imposed on facilities with extremely hazardous substances on-site in excess of threshold planning quantities designated by EPA.4