Toxic problems stir public pressure for right-to-know laws

In the wake of India's toxic tragedy, people all across the United States are undoubtedly peering at nearby chemical plants, with their giant tanks and tubes and strange smells, and wondering, ''What in blazes is in there?''

In much of the country, they may not be able to find out.

No federal law requires that manufacturing companies tell a plant's neighbors what dangerous substances are in their midst.

State and local ''right to know'' laws provide only spotty coverage.

''Right-to-know is becoming a big issue, from the community standpoint,'' says Julie Jordan, an environmental expert at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

''There will probably be a push to do more because of the (Indian) incident.''

Currently, it is in the Northeast crescent of the US that communities have the most information about chemicals in local factories. Fourteen states - among them New Jersey, Illinois, and Pennsylvania - require that manufacturers tell nearby fire departments what toxic substances they use, according to Robin Hertz , a safety expert with the Chemical Manufacturers Association (CMA).

In five of these 14 states, ''right to know'' laws are not limited to emergency workers, points out Brian Weberg, project manager for the National Conference of State Legislators. Records must be made available to the public in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Jersey, and Iowa, Mr. Weberg says. A governor's executive order accomplishes the same purpose in New York State.

In addition, a handful of cities, among them Cincinnati and several California towns, have passed their own right-to-know statutes.

But large areas of the country are not covered by such statutes - including the petrochemical-producing states of Texas and Louisiana.

Typically, community right-to-know laws do not mean that company public relations people must trudge door to door to sit down with residents and explain the dangers of, for instance, phosphine.

In Iowa the state environmental department is required to list chemicals it considers hazardous. Employers who use any listed chemical must file a report with local environmental officers; anyone is free to walk in off the street and inspect these reports.

Spencer Black, a Sierra Club field representative, lobbied hard for the Iowa law. Disclosure of chemicals to the community, he says, serves two main purposes:

''One, it improves the ability of local fire departments to respond appropriately to an emergency,'' says Mr. Black.

''In some cases (of spilled chemicals), you're supposed to put water on (them). In others, if you pour water on it's disastrous.''

''Two, when a factory comes into town, there's a lot of debate,'' he says. Public disclosure ensures that residents will be able to gauge accurately what dangers, if any, they will face.

''In some extreme cases, they may decide (a new plant) is a Faustian bargain they don't want to strike,'' says Black.

Although right-to-know laws affect many industries, chemical companies are often their primary target. And the chemical industry has mixed feelings about the laws.

''We want to provide information,'' says Robin Hertz of the Chemical Manufacturers Association, ''but simply providing communities with a list of long chemical names (isn't necessarily the best way to help.)''

CMA urges its members to work with government in emergency planning, Ms. Hertz says. Many chemical companies subsidize local fire departments; some even decline community service and keep their own firefighters on call.

Complying with widely varying state right-to-know laws, says Hertz, is ''quite a burden.''

''And we have a concern about the adequate protection of trade secrets,'' she says.

As the law now stands, chemical company employees may know somewhat more about the dangers of plants than those living nearby.

Twenty-one states require that employees be told about the hazards of the materials they handle. A federal statute on employee hazard communication, long delayed, is scheduled to take effect late next year.

Even proponents of community right-to-know legislation concede it is not a cure-all. Such laws don't prevent accidents, and just because chemical information is on file doesn't mean residents will go look at it.

''People can grow apathetic,'' says Jonathan Lash, a lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

But they defend the laws as a step on the road to better emergency planning.

''We're talking about people's ability to obtain health and safety information,'' Mr. Lash says.

Currently, there is no movement on Capitol Hill toward any kind of national community right-to-know law. States and cities, however, have been jolted awake by the Bhopal tragedy - the Akron City Council passed such a right-to-know ordinance Dec. 10.

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