In the absence of a federal U.S. policy for schools located near potentially dangerous sites, community activists search for safer solutions.
On April 17, 2013, an explosion and fire at the West Fertilizer Company plant in West, Texas, killed 15 people and injured hundreds. It also destroyed more than 150 buildings around the plant. Among these were the West Intermediate School for 4th and 5th graders, located about 550 feet (170 meters) away from the fertilizer plant, and West High School, about 1,150 feet (350 meters) away. In addition, the explosion and fire, fueled by fertilizer-grade ammonium nitrate — known to explode when exposed to heat and pressure — caused substantial damage to the nearby West Elementary School and West Middle School.
Also located right across the road from the plant and its fertilizer tanks were a playground and a basketball court — about 360 and 250 feet (110 and 76 meters) respectively from the plant fence line. Fortunately, the incident occurred at 7:51 p.m., long after students and staff had left the buildings, and on a day without evening activities. In its investigation, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board determined that had the schools been occupied at the time of the explosion, fatal injuries would likely have been extensive.
What’s more, additional analysis by CSB researchers has found that the proximity of these West, Texas, schools to a hazardous chemical facility was not unique. In fact, the researchers found that nearly half of the 40 businesses in Texas that have fertilizer-grade ammonium nitrate on site are located within a half mile (0.8 kilometers) of a school. A Center for Effective Government analysis published early this year also found that nearly one in 10 U.S. children — 4.9 million children — go to the approximately 12,000 schools nationwide that are within one mile (1.6 kilometers) of a facility that uses or stores dangerous chemicals. These are industrial sites using chemicals that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers hazardous enough to require the companies have emergency plans in place in case of toxic chemical release or other dangerous incident.
Another analysis by the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts Amherst found that schools located near industrial plants that release high volumes of toxic chemicals — and report these releases to the EPA under the agency’s Toxics Release Inventory program — put “thousands of schools and hundreds of thousands of children at risk” of exposure to hazardous air pollutants. Among these are chemicals known to adversely affect respiratory and neurological health — including lead, mercury and compounds associated with fossil fuels. CFEG and others have consistently found that these facilities are disproportionately located in and around minority and low-income populations.
There are indeed “thousands of these schools” all across the U.S., says CSB recommendations specialist Veronica Tinney, who examined this situation in a paper recently published by Environmental Health Perspectives. “I don’t think a lot of people know that these facilities are often located so close to schools,” she adds.
But some people, like Pam Nixon, who lives in West Virginia’s Kanawha Valley — not far from Charleston, and home to one of the country’s highest concentrations of chemical plants — are all too aware of this proximity. The plants there use and manufacture highly hazardous chemicals, many of which go into pesticides and plastics production, and have a history of accidents involving these toxics.
“We have emergency sirens that go off once a month. You can hear them all along the valley,” says Nixon, who is president of a local group called People Concerned About Chemical Safety. These are usually drills, but not always. “I live midway between a Dow Union Carbide facility and the Dow facility in Institute [West Virginia]. Every year the schools have a sheltering-in-place drill, so students and parents and teachers are able to shelter quickly and be able to cover the windows, to secure children in the buildings whenever there’s a chemical release from a facility,” she says. “I used to live in Institute and lived through a number of what were called conflagrations and explosions and chemical releases that caused us to have shelter-in-place.”
These incidents are far from a thing of the past. On Saturday, August 27, 2016, a chlorine gas leak at an Axiall chemical plant in New Martsinsville, West Virginia, caused community evacuations, closed highways and cancelled several schools’ sports events. (Chlorine, which is extremely toxic in its gaseous form, can cause breathing, lung and vision problems as well as nausea and burns, and can explode if it comes into contact with other common chemicals, including ammonia, natural gas or turpentine.) On August 31, a fire and chemical release at a chemical plant in Gallipolis Ferry, West Virginia (about an hour’s drive from Charleston) caused Beale Elementary School students and staff to shelter in place. Children were on the playground at the time, the school principal told WSAZ News Channel 3. “The students reacted marvelously, they had no problem with it. They just assumed it was a drill so they weren’t panicky,” she said. Then, on October 21, a chemical release at an Atchison, Kansas, plant caused local public school evacuations and an elementary school to shelter in place. And in 2014, the Freedom Industries chemical spill into the Elk River near Charleston affected the entire community, including shutting down schools where students complained of dizziness and burning eyes and noses.
No Rules or Regulations
There is no federal law or regulation that restricts or otherwise specifies how close schools can be to facilities that use or store hazardous materials, says Ronald White, an independent environmental health science consultant and co-author of the CFEG report Living in the Shadow of Danger.
“In terms of existing schools,” White explains, “there’s nothing on the books to address these hazards. People just didn’t think about this when they were locating these schools.” Actually, no federal agency currently even has the authority to prohibit school siting near facilities with hazardous chemicals, write CSB’s Tinney and co-authors. White calls the situation “a tragedy waiting to happen.”
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency “has done quite a bit of work on schools and hazards in school siting,” says Tinney. But, she says, the agency doesn’t have the authority to specify what happens at local schools.
For example, the EPA has developed voluntary School Siting Guidelines, released in 2011 under the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. But these only apply to new schools. In fact these guidelines say very clearly, “The school siting guidelines are NOT designed for retroactive application to previous school siting decisions.” The guidelines include recommendations to consider air and water pollution and soil contamination, whether from a legacy source — pollution that first occurred some time ago — or an ongoing activity like agricultural pesticide application. They also recommend considering the frequency and intensity of nearby “safety hazards … (e.g., explosion vs. flooding).” The guidelines mention industrial pollution hazards, but again these are recommendations, not requirements.
The EPA has also developed a “Healthy School Environments Assessment Tool.” However, it focuses primarily on hazards in school buildings or on school grounds rather than on hazards that may be located nearby in a school’s neighborhood or community.
The regulations that do exist about locating schools near environmental hazards are at the local level. But again, these focus on new schools, not ones already built. In a report for the EPA published in 2006, Rhode Island Legal Services researchers found that only 14 states actually had policies that specifically prohibit locating a school “near sources of pollution or other hazards that pose a risk to children’s safety.” They also found that about two dozen states had no requirement that environmental hazards be investigated before choosing a potential school site. And only 12 states had rules that required public input on new school siting, something the researchers considered essential to evaluating these hazards.
State-level rules that do exist specify that new schools can’t be built near facilities that use, store, release or dispose of toxics that range from petroleum products to pesticides. Some include heavy traffic areas and airports.
In the Kanawha Valley, Nixon says, a new elementary school was built in 2011 and “is located within less than 2 miles [3.2 kilometers] of Charleston chemical plants. I do not believe it was discussed that it was within a 2-mile radius of a chemical plant. There wasn’t any discussion about the location.” The chemical plants, she says, are just “part of the landscape. They’re just there.”
“It would be better if the schools were not so close to where you can see the plants in the background,” Nixon says. “Usually it’s people in the community that inform the company that whatever’s been released has reached the community. If the wind was blowing, the chemicals could be right there on kids outside before anyone knew about it.”
West Virginia requires schools to have crisis response plans that include shelter-in-place and evacuation procedures. Beale Elementary’s protocol involves sealing doors with plastic, turning off air conditioning and discarding any cafeteria food that could have been contaminated. The state also has policies regarding siting schools near certain environmental hazards, but given the concentration of chemical plants, many schools are still located nearby.
Safer Technology, Safer Chemicals
Even though thousands of schools across the country are in a position to be affected by an emergency incident at a hazardous chemical facility, “you’re not going to tear these schools down,” says White. “Then the answer is: Let’s make these [industrial] facilities safer. Institute safer technologies. This is something we need to do, not just for schools but for the entire community.”
Michele Roberts, national co-coordinator for the Environmental Justice Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform, and her colleagues advocate for use of safer chemicals and manufacturing processes by industries.
“What we’re pushing for,” Roberts says, “is what we’re calling a ‘just transition.’ We want to make sure our workers, our students, our young people who are being educated in these areas, that their health is considered and their safety is considered, by having safer businesses, safer processes.”
Roberts, too, has looked at where schools are located around the country, especially in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. “There is no policy in place that we know of that protects schools form being located within a 1- to 3-mile [1.6- to 4.8-kilometer] radius from some of our nation’s most egregious operations,” she says. Places where Roberts, White and others have found these hazards clustered include Los Angeles County, Houston and other communities along the Gulf Coast.
Roberts describes being in Wilmington, Delaware, recently — where she says there are schools up and down the Route 9 industrial corridor — working on science education with school kids and recalls, “An 11-year-old that was part of that youth and science work we’re doing was appalled to know that schools can be located within the vulnerability zone,” the area that would be affected if there was a chemical release or other such emergency.
Inherently safer industrial processes are also part of the public conversation going on in West Virginia, says Nixon. A new methanol processing plant is being planned for the Institute area, and people are concerned that it will likely be very close to a local college, she explains. “That community has a long history of explosions and leaks and sheltering in place,” she says, so there’s concern about bringing in a plant without inherently safer design.
The “issue is so complex,” CSB’s Tinney acknowledges. Solutions, she explains, will require working with land-use planning officials, school districts, and state and local environmental and health authorities. Tinney also agrees that inherently safer technologies for existing chemical plants, refineries and other industrial facilities are key.
In the wake of the West, Texas, tragedy, President Obama issued Executive Order 13560. It directed federal agencies to work with companies that use and store hazardous chemicals to reduce those dangers. The order hasn’t yet produced substantive changes; the EPA is now considering new requirements that could include asking companies to look at safer technologies that would reduce risks to surrounding communities.
Responding to this issue, the American Chemistry Council — the trade association representing the U.S. chemical industry — has pointed to its “Responsible Care” program, required for ACC members but otherwise voluntary, and says this has reduced the number of “incidents that resulted in a product spill, fire, explosion or injury by 55 percent since 1995.” ACC also says, “Over the past decade, our members have invested almost $13 billion in chemical facility security enhancements under the Code.” But, as Senator Barbara Boxer — who has been outspoken on this issue — pointed out in a statement and Senate hearing in 2014, “[i]n the 602 days since the West, Texas, tragedy, there have been 355 chemical accidents, resulting in 12 deaths and almost 1,500 hospitalizations.”
Yet, says White, the issue of schools in danger zones often gets pushed “to the back burner,” unless an emergency occurs. He also says it’s unlikely that the rules the Obama administration has been working on to update emergency planning requirements for hazardous chemical facilities will address this issue, especially regarding existing schools.
Currently, the entire issue of environmental hazards that affect schools is addressed by a patchwork of local laws and voluntary initiatives. There “is no federal, state, or local agency that is authorized, funded, and staffed to protect children in these settings from environmental health hazards,” say Healthy Schools Network executive director Claire Barnett and George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Science professor of pediatrics Jerome Paulson in a paper just published by Environmental Health Perspectives. Yet, says White, there should be “some requirement that these schools are aware of what procedures to take should there be an accident.
“Unfortunately, even that is not happening with any consistency,” White says. “But if parents knew, there would be more pressure.”