Incomplete and inaccurate data makes it impossible to determine how many serious chemical accidents like the one that killed 15 people in a Central Texas town this year occur annually in the United States, according to a newspaper report.
An analysis of more than 750,000 federal records showed that even the best national data on chemical accidents is wrong nine times out of 10, according to a report by the Dallas Morning News.
After April’s explosion at the West Fertilizer Co., the newspaper began analyzing four federal databases to determine how often serious industrial chemical accidents occur. It concluded there was no way to know because the data was so poor.
“We can track Gross National Product to the second and third decimal, but there is no reliable way of tracking even simple things like how many (chemical) accidents happen,” said Sam Mannan, an expert on chemical safety who testified at a congressional hearing on West.
The newspaper confirmed at least 24 industrial chemical accidents in Texas that resulted in deaths, injuries or evacuations during the past four-year period. But there were likely more, and the spotty data made it impossible to compare Texas to other states.
“The data are insufficient to drive analysis that would help prevent future accidents,” said Paul Orum, a chemical safety consultant to environmental groups, who has frequently testified before Congress.
The U.S. Coast Guard’s National Response Center is the only agency that collects comprehensive information specifically on chemical accidents. But the data just has initial reports, which are often inaccurate and no one follows up on them. For example, the newspaper found the center’s 2012 data included 137 deaths that never happened, but ended up recorded as part of training exercises.
“It’s comprehensive, but it’s useless data,” said Mannan, who heads the Mary Kay O’Connor Process Safety Center at Texas A&M and was a chemical engineer for 12 years. “Only 10 percent accuracy. Nowhere near reliable to where you could make statistically valid conclusions.”
He also said chemical companies strongly oppose publicly releasing their accident data.
Numerous studies and reports show the government has long been aware of the problem, but efforts to address it have floundered for lack of funding or attention.
The 1984 chemical disaster in Bhopal, India that killed more than 5,000 spurred the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to create a chemical accident database. But by 1989, the project’s funding ended.
Former EPA Administrator Bill Ruckelshaus, who led that initiative, said he was looking for hard data to help policymakers ensure the chemical industry had proper safeguards in place.
Then, as now, he said, “We should be carefully assessing accidents or instances in which toxic materials have been released and find out why that happened and take steps necessary to reduce the chances of it happening in the future.”