Chemical Accident Safety

EPA's Responsibilities for Preparedness, Response, and Prevention Gao ID: PEMD-96-3 June 27, 1996

More than a decade ago, a chemical spill in Bhopal, India, killed or injured thousands and displaced many more from their homes and businesses. The magnitude of this event, along with the potential for similar accidents in the United States, resulted in legislation that gave the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) a central role in implementing chemical accident safety policy. GAO found that EPA had vigorous programs for accident preparedness and response. Recent legislation, however, has shifted the agency's primary focus to preventing chemical accidents. Through risk management planning, EPA has undertaken several efforts to further the prevention of accidents, including collaboration with industry and professional associations. EPA has developed a large repository of information on accident prevention. A major barrier to preventing accidents, though, remains the relative lack of involvement of community residents and some industry sectors. To maximize the potential for accident prevention, information that facilitates prevention must be made available and used by industry and communities.

GAO found that: (1) although chemical accidents may be increasing, there is no clear evidence on accident trends; (2) accident data are incomplete and sometimes inaccurate; (3) EPA has vigorous programs for accident preparedness and response, but legislation has caused EPA to shift its primary focus to chemical accident prevention; (4) EPA assists in developing industry, state, and local accident preparedness programs, but those programs often fail to inform the public of potential accident risks; (5) EPA is using several sources, including the Internet, to disseminate accident data; (6) EPA is required to assess the nature and seriousness of chemical accidents and take charge of response operations if the responsible party or state and local officials cannot handle the incident and coordinate other agencies' direct response efforts; (7) local authorities rely heavily on EPA for accident assessments, since they often do not have the training or resources to perform initial assessments; (8) EPA has collaborated with industry and professional associations to further understand safety management issues; (9) EPA has issued regulations requiring facilities to develop and implement risk management plans, including emergency response programs; (10) EPA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the National Transportation Safety Board have delineated their responsibilities to investigate chemical accidents; and (11) although EPA has developed a large repository of information on accident prevention issues, the information is not being utilized at the community and industry level.


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