Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (1986) (Major Acts of Congress)
John Cary Sims
Excerpt from the Emergency Planning and Community Right-To-Know Act
Not later than six months after October 17, 1986, the Governor of each State shall appoint a State emergency response commission.... Not later than nine months after October 17, 1986, the State emergency response commission shall designate emergency planning districts in order to facilitate preparation and implementation of emergency plans.... Not later than 30 days after designation of emergency planning districts or 10 months after October 17, 1986, whichever is earlier, the State emergency response commission shall appoint members of a local emergency planning committee for each emergency planning district.
The Emergency Planning and Community Right-To-Know Act of 1986 (EPCRA) (88 Stat. 2156) establishes a framework of state, regional, and local agencies that can inform the public about the presence of hazardous and toxic chemicals and provide for emergency response if accidental release of such chemicals threatens public health.
Congress passed EPCRA in response to the tragedy in Bhopal, India, in December 1984, in which many thousands were killed by an accidental release of a toxic chemical from a Union Carbide facility. Within the year, a similar but less serious accident occurred in Institute, West Virginia. The disorganized response of local authorities prompted further calls for systematic planning in anticipation of such incidents. Those in support of such planning also argued for improved disclosure to the public about the use, storage, and release of dangerous chemicals.
The act requires systematic planning at the state and local level to prepare responses to emergencies created by chemical releases. Under the act, facilities that exceed specified threshold amounts of hazardous chemicals must make recurrent reports to authorities. EPCRA limits the use of the "trade secret" protection, which allows facilities to withhold the specific chemical identity of the substances they use.
The legislative debate that led to the passage of EPCRA involved a much broader range of issues than those addressed in the act itself. EPCRA was closely related to the "Superfund" legislation, formally known as the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA). Congress enacted EPCRA as part of the Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act of 1986. Intense controversy developed over the cost of the Superfund legislation. President Ronald Reagan threatened to veto the bill, and the bill's supporters planned to mount an effort to override that veto. However, Reagan signed the statute on October 17, 1986, as he had been urged to do by the head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
EPCRA is enforced in a variety of ways. The EPA may use a broad range of enforcement mechanisms, and those violating the act may be subject to criminal, civil, or administrative penalties. State and local governments may also seek civil penalties or ask courts to issue injunctions to stop a particular action at a facility. Private individuals and other entities can also take action against alleged violators. The EPA must be notified sixty days before an enforcement action is filed by others against the owner or operator of a chemical facility. If the agency is "diligently" seeking enforcement then no other enforcement action is permitted against the owner.
EPCRA has improved governmental planning to deal with releases of dangerous chemicals that may harm the public, and the reports required by the act have greatly expanded the amount of information available to the public about risks relating to such substances.
The Internet has made this information easy to obtain for those interested in receiving it. EPCRA's system of community notification uses the material safety data sheets (MSDS) prepared under the requirements of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (OSHA). Over the years that EPCRA has been in force, the reported releases of toxic chemicals into the environment have decreased significantly, suggesting that the statute has been effective in reducing the risks to communities. However, some have suggested that EPCRA is less effective than it seems. This is because the chemicals industry has to some extent shifted from using chemicals subject to EPCRA reporting to alternative dangerous chemicals that are beyond the reach of the statute.
See also: COMPREHENSIVE ENVIRONMENTAL RESPONSE, COMPENSATION, AND LIABILITY ACT; NATIONAL ENVIRONMENTAL POLICY ACT; OCCUPATIONAL SAFETY AND HEALTH ACT OF 1970.