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Communities have a right to know what chemicals are released in industrial accidents, a federal judge ruled last week.

The ruling by Judge Amit Mehta of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on Monday, Feb. 4, requires the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) to determine and disclose what air pollutants are accidentally emitted by any industry the board monitors.

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A lawsuit was filed in December 2017 by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which argued the CSB should have been reporting chemical releases for years. While the 1990 law that created the CSB required it, the national safety board has never adopted such a mandate in its nearly 30-year existence.

Daniel Horowitz, managing director of CSB from 2000 to 2018, advocated for greater public reporting of chemical accidents during his tenure, he said.

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“The big problem for community groups right now is there is no reliable database of chemical accidents,” Horowitz said. “The hope is with a rule like this there will be a one-stop shop for community groups and first responders to find out about chemical releases — what chemicals, what quantities and their effects.”

In California, reporting requirements are more stringent than in many other states, making the job of finding out information a little easier, but not much, Horowitz said.

“You really need a lot of expertise to find out what accidents have happened,” he said. “There is often a lot of leg work required.”

AB 1647, a bill sponsored by Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi (D-Torrance) and signed by then-Gov. Jerry Brown in 2017, will require by 2020 fence-line and community air quality monitoring around oil refineries along with reporting of the readings from those devices in real-time.

The South Coast Air Quality Management Agency (SCAQMD) in 2017 directed $2.77 million to enhance the monitoring and alert systems at the refinery in Torrance. But there is still a lot the public is not aware of.

At the SCAQMD’s board meeting Feb. 1, it was revealed for the first time 10 leaks of modified hydrogen fluoride or hydrofluoric acid (MHF) occurred since 2017 from the Torrance and Wilmington refineries. Those releases ended up detected using sensors on refinery property.

Four of the incidents involved the release of MHF at quantities greater than 10 parts per million (PPM). The lowest lethal dose for inhalation is estimated between 50 and 250 PPM for a five-minute exposure.

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