This study explores the implementation of the current federal and state hazardous materials emergency planning policies at the county level, looking specifically at Tulare County, California.
In 1986, Title III of the Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act (SARA, Title III) federally mandated emergency response planning for hazardous materials or chemical accidents. Planning for this type of incident, as well as others, requires a multi-agency approach at all levels of government, from federal to local. The majority of these activities are financed by federal and state funds, but local governments must also contribute to achieve these goals.
The risks of hazardous materials accidents depend on the chemicals in the environment and the type of business in a particular area. The Central Valley of California is known for its agricultural production. Pesticides are hazardous materials, and, thus, the risk for a chemical accident is increased by the nature of business in the area. For this reason, hazardous materials emergency response planning becomes even more important at the city and county levels in this region.
On November 13, 1999, the residents of Earlimart, California, located in Tulare County, were exposed to a pesticide drift of metam sodium, which had been applied in a nearby field. They experienced immediate nausea, vomiting, burning eyes, mild rashes, and difficulty breathing. To this day, some continue to suffer from episodic breathing problems as a result of the exposure. This pesticide drift resulted in 170 documented pesticide poisonings, the largest group pesticide poisoning in California from 1997 to 2000. Some members of the town were decontaminated, some evacuated, some told to stay in their homes, and others sent for medical care. The emergency response effort by the local agencies enraged many of these residents, who, in the aftermath, viewed the incident as unorganized, not unified, confusing and insensitive. Paul Helliker, Director, Department of Pesticide Regulation, shared this view as well. In a letter to the Tulare County Board of Supervisors, he pointed to “a lack of training and a need for a unified response plan that clearly delineates lines of responsibility and courses of action... from various agencies and counties.”
Federal and California State legislation and guidelines for hazardous materials emergency response planning were reviewed. Structured interviews with state and local government agencies responsible for planning and responding to hazardous materials accidents were conducted, as well as interviews with Earlimart residents.
Rapid and well planned responses are the key to effective emergency management. As “first responders”, county and local agencies play an important role in the initial management of a hazardous materials accident. Thus, they need to plan and to practice working together to ensure an effective response.
Therefore, I recommend that the State have more oversight of county-level hazardous materials emergency response planning and preparation and require interagency exercises/drills with evaluation every 2-3 years at the county level. County and local government agencies need to recognize the unique nature of agriculture-related emergencies and prepare accordingly. The public needs to be included in the planning process. This will allow county and local agencies to assess language and other specific needs of their respective communities and address these needs prior to an actual emergency.
Luke Cole, Esq., Center for Race, Poverty and the Environment and CDC-Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registration
Stephanie Miles-Richardson, DVM, PhD, Minority Health Program Manager, Office of Urban Affairs, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry
Rueben C. Warren, DDS, MPH, DPH, Associate Administrator, Office of Urban Affairs, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry