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Opinion: Managing risk

CINCINNATI, Ohio -- Most Greater Cincinnatians had never heard of the chemical styrene, but the region got a quick education when a railroad tank in Cincinnati's East End began leaking vapors in August, causing the evacuation of 800 residents, the closing of the Ohio River and shelter-in-place orders in nearby Kentucky.

It also got a dramatic reminder of its vulnerability.

By truck, train and barge, deadly chemicals travel in and out of this region in volumes that could make it hard to sleep at night, were we the jittery type. That we sleep easily could be chalked up to ignorance - most of us have no idea of the existence of hazardous materials in our own neighborhoods.

Recent stories by Post reporter Jon Newberry likely opened some eyes.

As Newberry reported, more than 60 local companies - 49 in southwest Ohio and 11 in Northern Kentucky - use one or more hazardous chemicals in quantities large enough that they're required to file risk-management plans with the federal government, records show.

Some are obvious: EMD Chemicals in Norwood, for example, and Dow Corning Corp. in Carrollton, Ky., which uses nine different dangerous chemicals. But others on the list include the likes of Louis Trauth Dairy in downtown Newport and Samuel Adams Brewery in Over-the-Rhine.

One tri-state manufacturer - Cincinnati Specialties in St. Bernard, which regularly brings in railroad tank cars filled with 180,000 pounds of highly toxic chlorine - even makes the federal EPA's list of about 110 facilities in the United States that, in the event of a worst-case accident, could pose a threat to more than a million people.

Fortunately, Cincinnati Specialties has strong safeguards and an impressive safety record - and the warnings are based on doomsday-like scenarios that are unlikely to happen.
But we must remain vigilant - and informed.

Some people would argue for secrecy, saying the presence of harmful chemicals shouldn't be talked about for fear of giving terrorists ideas. But we think the EPA mandates requiring companies to be upfront about the chemicals they use and to work closely with local emergency officials on safety and environmental issues are strong laws that need to stay.

We also encourage local authorities to set aside the time and money to frequently and comprehensively look at these reports, to assess the danger and to develop and practice responses to emergencies. As the disasters in Louisiana and Katrina show, preparation and a quick response save lives.

Government regulators must also be aggressive in making sure the laws governing the transport and storage of such chemicals are followed. The railcar containing styrene apparently began leaking because somebody lost track of the car, which was sitting on a railroad siding, and a chemical that is added periodically to stabilize the flammable styrene had expired. The incident could have been much worse - the car was in danger of exploding but was cooled down by fire hoses before it could get to that point.

Which brings us to the bottom line. The location of rail lines and plants that use chemicals in highly developed areas is not the ideal situation, to say the least. In many cases we just have to live with it - a water treatment plant must use chemicals to purify water, and we need the jobs these plants provide.

But there will be opportunities - such as when a plant closes - for officials to phase out industrial uses in developed areas, and we encourage them to do so.

Given that such opportunities will be rare, it's imperative that we remain watchful. Potential time bombs are all around us. With knowledge and the proper safeguards, we can make sure they don't go off.

Monday, October 10, 2005

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