Seven years after Sandy, are we better prepared for a chemical spill,  fire or explosion if a superstorm hits?

TRENTON, NJ—Labor, environmental and community organizations are urging state leaders to plan for toxic chemical spills and other emergencies associated with natural disasters to mark the seventh anniversary of Superstorm Sandy.

The worst natural disaster in New Jersey history, Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc for millions and devastated record numbers of homes, businesses and schools.  Researchers are still evaluating long-term contaminant threats as they examine how Sandy’s deadly conditions spread oil, hazardous materials, and debris across Mid-Atlantic waterways resulting in compromised infrastructure, beach erosion and sediment disturbance on the coasts of New Jersey and New York.

Local groups caution if another superstorm like Sandy hits, over 5,000 facilities comprising New Jersey’s multi-billion dollar chemical industry pose a unique threat to the state, which is America’s most densely populated.  Home to two major oil refineries, New Jersey is also a hub for U.S. petroleum distribution.  Thousands of trains carrying millions of gallons of extremely flammable crude oil pass through NJ communities each week traveling 11 counties crossing bridges that, in some cases, are more than 100 years old.

According to the New Jersey Work Environmental Council (WEC), this combination of natural resources, industry and coastal proximity is a “perfect storm before the storm,” and calls for a critical integrated effort to prepare for potential toxic releases in the event of a natural disaster or flooding.

“Businesses in New Jersey who use or store hazardous materials onsite need a plan to prevent toxic releases during high winds, flooding or a storm surge,” said WEC Executive Director Debra Coyle McFadden. “This includes usual suspects like chemical manufacturers, refineries and food processing facilities, but also businesses such as auto repair and dry cleaners.”

“NJ was negligently unprepared for the weather event such as superstorm Sandy,” said John Pajak, President of International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 877 – the union representing workers at Phillips 66 Bayway Refinery. “NJ had no laws, regulation or engineering standards that could have helped mitigated the toxic exposures to the citizens and environment. The pollution that occurred during and after the storm could have been avoided with proper preparation. While corporations have improved their infrastructures since then, they are not prepared for the next of level of superstorms that could hit our state, and even be much worse than superstorm Sandy. It is up to the Governor and legislators to prevent the next storm from creating havoc on the citizen of NJ. NJ government should look into any law including TCPA and DPCC to see if there are any measures that can improve how industry’s infrastructures can be prepared to handle the next storm in order to prevent an humanitarian or environmental catastrophe.”

United Steelworkers (USW) District 4 Director Del Vitale said, “USW members have a long history of working to prevent worker and community exposure to hazardous chemicals. Extreme weather is inevitable, and our union has a continued commitment to work with policymakers and our employers to prevent and respond to possible chemical releases.”

There are 1,741 schools in New Jersey that are vulnerable to a toxic release according to a report, Kids in the Danger Zone issued by the Center for Effective Government in 2014. This means 43% of students are at risk.

“Young people across the world have emerged as some of the most powerful advocates for drastic action to curb climate change which gives me hope for our future,” said Sean M. Spiller, Vice President of the New Jersey Education Association. “While they do that vital work here in New Jersey as well, we owe it to them to ensure that their public schools remain safe and healthy when extreme weather hits.”

Federal law requires counties and municipalities where such facilities are located to have an Emergency Response Plan (ERP) to address the dangers of an unplanned chemical release and to communicate these plans with the public. In 2016, WEC surveyed the 59 municipalities and 19 counties that hosted the 95 most potentially hazardous facilities that are regulated by the NJ Toxic Catastrophe Prevention Act, requesting to review the community Emergency Response Plans. The results? Thirty-four municipalities (or 58%) and 16 counties (also 84%) denied the request.

“Having access to up-to-date ERPs is essential to the safety of first responders and the citizens they are sworn to protect,” said Dominick Marino, President, Professional Firefighters Association of New Jersey, IAFF, AFL-CIO.  “Planning and training for first responders to respond to emergencies is critical in the efforts to mitigate the event and prevent loss of life.  It is vital that emergency planning information is reviewed and updated as often as necessary because conditions and hazards can change.”

“Are we ready for a chemical spill, fire or explosion if we get another superstorm like Sandy?” continued McFadden.  “The simple, scary answer is we don’t know.” WEC, along with Teamsters Local 877 have filed a federal lawsuit against the State of New Jersey to enforce our right to know.

“On the 7th anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, we are not stronger than the next storm. Saying NJ is stronger than the storm is hubris. Many lives, communities, homes, and coastal areas were devastated during Sandy and they are still vulnerable. Many of New Jersey’s industrial facilities, landfills, and Superfund Sites were also flooded during Sandy. Here we are several years later and we still allow the storage of toxic chemicals and are not doing enough to flood proof these facilities from the next storm,” said Jeff Tittel, Director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “We have been trying for 20 years to get rules and regulations in place to get storage and treatment of toxic chemicals out of flood prone areas. During Sandy and other floods, there is a witch’s brew of chemicals that seep into our neighborhoods and into our waterways. Nature is already planning for us with flood after flood, we need to be prepared.”

WEC and allies are also advocating for the Oil Train Safety Bill, legislation aiming to create greater transparency about oil spill hazards in the face of climate change, derailment and other growing risks to New Jersey.

The Oil Train Safety bill, S1883, which has already passed in the state senate, requires rail companies to develop emergency response and cleanup plans, as well as public disclosure of routes and volumes of oil trains moving through the state.  It also requires training for first responders in pass through communities and mandatory submission of railroad bridge inspection reports to the NJ Department of Transportation.

On September 30th, 19 labor, environmental and community organizations sent a letter to bill sponsor Assemblywoman Nancy Pinkin (D-Edison) and Chair of the Transportation Committee Assemblyman Dan Benson (D-Hamilton) calling for action on this vital measure before the end of the year.  In addition to WEC, supporters include the Professional Firefighters Association of New Jersey, Teamsters Local 877, the New Jersey Sierra Club and Environment New Jersey.

“Our oil and chemical industry is important to our state’s economy,” said McFadden.  “But we can’t lose sight of the health and safety of workers in those industries, or the well-being of residents in surrounding communities particularly at a time when the Trump Administration is rolling back safeguards on our water, air and chemical facilities. It’s imperative that industries handling or transporting by rail hazardous substances operate with full transparency to allow us to take critical steps to prepare for emergencies and protect our communities,” McFadden added.

New Jersey Work Environment Council (WEC) is an alliance of labor, community, and environmental organizations working together for safe, secure jobs, and a healthy, sustainable environment.  WEC links workers, communities, and environmentalists through training, technical assistance, grassroots organizing, and public policy campaigns to promote dialogue, collaboration, and joint action. Formed in 1986, WEC is the nation’s oldest state labor/environmental (or “blue/green”) coalition.