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Right to know

The recent public outcry regarding the long-term and short-term environmental impact from the fire in St. Thomas is but an example of what happens when industry, government, and residential communities fail to communicate and share information about the commercial activities occurring at their doorstep.

It is also an example of what happens when government fails to implement safeguards that protects residents and the environment from the disaster scenarios. It is also an example of what happens when government does not have appropriate legislation in place that requires commercial entities to declare what they are doing, what the end product will be, and what are the possible repercussions affecting the community in the event of a disaster scenario.

Less than one week ago, a commercial operation storing Ammonium Nitrate in West Texas, US, exploded killing 14 persons including four fire service officers, shattering house windows more than five miles away from the site, registering 2.0 on the Richter Scale, and vaporising more than 50 acres of open space.

According to US authorities, the incident is being investigated as an accident and not as an act of terrorism or deliberate sabotage. However, environmental authorities have not faulted the company for the collateral impact from the explosion. Residents living in the area were aware of the company’s existence and had not had any issues with its operations.

One of the factors contributing to residents being aware of what was operating in their backyards, is a piece of legislation titled The Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act of 1986, a US federal law passed by the 99th United States Congress located at Title 42, Chapter 116 of the US Code, concerned with emergency response preparedness. Then US, President Ronald Reagan, signed into law on October 17, 1986, the Superfund Amendments and Reauthorisation Act of 1986 (SARA). This act amended the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA), commonly known as Superfund.

The Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act is commonly known as SARA Title III. Its purpose is to encourage and support emergency planning efforts at the state and local levels and to provide the public and local governments with information concerning potential chemical hazards present in their communities.

Superfund is the common name for the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980. This US law was established and designed to clean up sites contaminated with hazardous substances. The Superfund created the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, and it provides broad federal authority to clean up releases or threatened releases of hazardous substances that may endanger public health or the environment.

The law also authorised the US Environmental Protection Agency to identify parties responsible for contamination of sites and compel them to clean up the sites. Where responsible parties cannot be found, the agency is authorised to clean up sites itself, using a special trust fund.

One of the many benefits of SARA Title III is that communities must be made aware of any and all commercial and government activities occurring in their vicinity. If a business, similar to the West Texas company wants to locate in a particular area, it must first inform all other businesses and residents within a specific physical distance from the company. It must provide detailed information about its activities, its safety protocols, and what could happen if an accident should occur. Failure to comply with this legal requirement, results in denial of the relevant permits needed to establish operations.

Barbados’ laws, as currently in place, do not support this kind of information sharing and liability from commercial operations. Case in point: September 2007, Mcbrides erupts in flames in Lowlands, Christ Church, the entrance to highly populated Lowlands residential communities is less than 500 feet from the engulfed complex.

January 3, 2005, an employee is killed while neutralizing fireworks at a house in Collymore Rock. The victim, an electrician, and not an accredited pyro-technician, had been conducting the activities in a property next door to a church, a day care centre, and the headquarters of a major insurance corporation. The approximate distance between the varying buildings was less than 50 feet at their maximum.

An examination of the law governing this particular operation showed that a penalty of $500 for contravening the statute was all that could be imposed. The fact that there was a fatality does not change the penalties. I must however, concede, that trained lawyers would argue the point that liability for the death and the fact that the site was not an approved location, could be attributed to the business owner in court.

I present this historical example to support a long held opinion that Barbados needs to review its laws regarding information sharing of the activities of commercial enterprises to include even the activities of Government, which may also be considered as encroaching on public safety.

Communities have a right to know what commercial activities are being established in their backyards. Communities have a right to know about the possible impact to their personal safety and health when an accident occurs. Communities, need to be more comprehensively informed about the emergency response measures established by the commercial enterprise in the event of an emergency.

Last week I raised issue about the distribution of space between commerce and residential development in the areas of Newton, Six Roads, Wildey, the Pine, Grazettes, Spring Garden and the Harbour, Lower Estate and Warrens, and asked the question: Who was there first?

Today, I will ask an even more provocative question: Do the residents in neighbouring residential areas know what happens at those locations? Has any one said anything about what could happen if Barbados experienced a West Texas-like explosion?

Will residents have to wait until such an incident occurs before the laws and the issue of commercial and personal responsibility for the welfare of their neighbours is tragically but forcibly addressed?

I sincerely hope that we can be proactive about this very serious public safety issue, rather than reactive, as we often are with hurricanes.

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