By Debra Coyle McFadden

New Jersey mandates that all school districts establish School Safety and Security plans in cooperation with police, fire departments, emergency planners and others. The hazard assessments within these plans must consider risks posed by local industry and spell out evacuation, shelter in place, and lockdown procedures. School Safety and Security plans cannot be adequate if district officials tasked with the responsibility of developing them are denied access to critical chemical disaster data.

Access Denied, a new report issued by the New Jersey Work Environment Council (WEC), documents how the Christie administration is allowing counties and municipalities to violate federal law by blocking public access to local Emergency Response Plans (ERPs). WEC wrote to the 59 municipalities and 19 counties that host the 95 most potentially hazardous facilities, requesting to review the ERPs. Thirty-four of the 59 municipalities and 16 of the 19 counties denied or ignored the request. The facilities in these communities include chemical plants, oil refineries, sewage and water treatment works that use chlorine, bulk chemical handling and storage terminals, and refrigerated food processing facilities that use ammonia.

Security concerns exaggerated

There is a common refrain regarding nefarious characters getting their hands on this public information as a reason not to release it. We should recognize that those bad actors can access much of this information without an ERP. Large chemical facilities are easily discoverable with either a quick internet search, aerial map, or a pair of binoculars. If facility information is already disclosed, easily observable, or readily discoverable, then keeping it secret is not an option.

Although we should be vigilant about terrorism, the greater risk to school employees and community members is exposure to chemicals, particularly if there is a disaster. So we should be just as vigilant in preparing for and reducing the risk of that scenario. While chemical plant accidents are much more likely, emergency responders and communities should prepare for chemical releases from terrorism too—and we should all support technology upgrades that might make facilities less attractive terrorist targets.

The need to know is real

According to a 2014 report released by the Center for Effective Government, Kids in Danger Zones, 1,492 New Jersey schools are sited in the vulnerability zone of a hazardous chemical facility. A staggering 43 percent of pre-k through high school students are at risk from a chemical catastrophe in New Jersey. The report states the riskiest facility in the U.S. is located in South Kearny, putting 1,887 schools at risk from a chlorine release.

Gov. Chris Christie’s failure to ensure public oversight required by law has serious consequences. It prevents residents and community advocates from making suggestions to improve emergency plans. It exchanges opportunities for informed community preparedness for misleading promises of security. By keeping the public in the dark about the dangers we all face, the Christie administration protects corporate executives from pressure to replace highly hazardous substances or processes with safer ones. It also hinders the ability of school districts to create the most useful School Safety and Security Plans by hiding important information that should be included.

What local associations can do

Local associations can work with their UniServ field representatives to ensure that community and school officials have access to all data needed to properly assess chemical disaster hazards, and take all the necessary steps toward hazard reduction and emergency preparedness.

Specific local actions can include:

• Encourage members to sign WEC’s petition (see “For more information) to Gov. Christie demanding the right to know about chemical hazards.

• Request and review the local Emergency Response Plan (ERP). WEC has developed a factsheet on how to make a request. If access is denied, please contact WEC to assist with the request.

• Request and review the district’s school safety and security plan. Make sure it is up to date, and compare it to the local ERP to make sure they are consistent with each other.

• Ensure there is annual training of school staff on how school personnel and community responders will protect staff and students.

• Ensure there is a fire and security drill every two months.

Debra Coyle McFadden is assistant director of the New Jersey Work Environment Council, a coalition of 70 organizations dedicated to safe, secure jobs and a healthy, sustainable environment.

For more information

Stop Chemical Disasters: Respect Our Right to Know, WEC campaign petition.

Access Denied: NJ Communities Remain in the Dark about Chemical Disaster, 2016 WEC report.

How to Request an Emergency Response Plan, WEC factsheet, Pages 22-23 of above report.

Kids in Danger Zones, Center for Effective Government 2014 report.


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