The path to finding hazardous chemicals

Bill Heltzel, Andy Conte and Point Park students

It took four months for PublicSource to get into a room in Pittsburgh’s federal courthouse to look at sensitive reports about ammonia.

We were given 45 minutes to view scores of reports, which we could not copy.

So what exactly were we after? And why was it so hard to get?

In April, a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, exploded. Fifteen people were killed, mostly first-responders, and 200 were injured. We wanted to know which Pennsylvania companies use ammonium nitrate, the chemical implicated in that explosion.

That information is kept by the Pennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry. But the state refused to release the information, despite a federal law that mandates public disclosure of hazardous chemical stockpiles. Now we’re arguing the issue in Commonwealth Court.

So we decided to look at another chemical implicated in the explosion, anhydrous ammonia, the main ingredient in the fertilizer. An Environmental Protection Agency database identified scores of facilities that store large amounts of ammonia. One place stood out, the Dyno Nobel plant in Donora, which stores 400 times more ammonia than the West fertilizer plant. Dyno Nobel manufactures explosives.

I wondered: What’s the big deal with ammonia? It turns out that the EPA classifies it as extremely hazardous. If handled improperly or released in an accident, it can cause casualties ranging from minor burns to death. It’s the most commonly used hazardous chemical in Pennsylvania, according to the EPA.

What’s more, the EPA requires companies that handle lots of it, at least five tons, to file risk-management plans.

That’s what led to the Pittsburgh courthouse.

But, not so fast.

The EPA and nonprofit organizations put some of the risk plans online. But the sensitive stuff can be viewed only at government offices. That’s the offsite consequence analysis, and, as the name suggests, it includes the potential impact of a catastrophic accident, including worst-case scenarios that show how many people could be affected by chemical leaks and explosions.

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In the 1990s, the EPA wanted to make access easy by putting all of the information online. Full disclosure, the agency said in a 2000 report, “would likely lead to significant reduction in the number and severity of accidental chemical releases.”

“More than any other information in a risk-management plan,” the EPA said, the offsite consequence analysis “provides an easily understood means of evaluating the hazards a particular facility poses to its surrounding community.”

The chemical industry and law enforcement saw the issue differently. They argued that a single terrorist attack on a chemical facility could take a greater toll than many accidental releases, and that Internet access to information would increase the risk.

Under the final rules, most of the risk-management plan is available online, but government employees may not disclose the offsite consequence analysis.

The public may see and disclose the information, but access to the reports is restricted to 10 reports a month or reports for every facility near where you live or work.

Those reports can be viewed at EPA headquarters in Washington, D.C., in its regional offices, or in 50 Department of Justice reading rooms. In Pittsburgh, the reading room is at the U.S. Courthouse, according to the EPA

But, we found that there is no actual reading room.

In fact, courthouse officials had never heard of it. Eventually, we were  put in touch with the U.S. Marshal’s office in Pittsburgh, which would supervise the process. That was in July.

In August, I did a test run. A paralegal in the Department of Justice counterterrorism section in Washington sent several reports to Pittsburgh for my review. But at 10 reports a month and 122 Pennsylvania facilities with active risk plans for ammonia, it would take more than a year to see them all.  

That’s when six students in Andrew Conte’s advanced reporting class at Point Park University came to the rescue. The students and PublicSource staff members would look at all reports at one time.

Under DOJ rules, each of us had to request specific reports. Once they were sent to Pittsburgh, we scheduled an appointment, working around the marshal’s court duties and a government shutdown.  We agreed on Nov. 22nd, 8:30 a.m.

We surrendered cell phones and laptop computers at the guard station of the courthouse and  trooped into a conference room and were handed individual packets.

We were not allowed to talk or discuss one another’s reports. We were not allowed to make copies or keep the reports. We manually checked off and filled in a form with information from the reports.

When the time was up, we turned in our packets and swore that each of us had seen no more than 10 offsite consequence analyses in November.

Out of 122 reports, we got through all but two in 45 minutes.

The result: We compiled indispensable information on major ammonia facilities throughout Pennsylvania. The journalism students pulled off their assignment like pros.

“You have to play by the rules to find the information you need,” said Point Park student Andrew Goldstein. “But to do the job the right way, a little waiting can lead to a big reward.”