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Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Play it Cool – Researching Historical Spills


Jet fuel, anhydrous ammonia, PCE, mercury, 2,4-D, or cranberries; gasket ruptures, corrosion, vandalism, storms, abandonment, derailments, or collision; 2 ounces, 414 pounds, or 900,000 gallons; whatever the source, whatever the cause, whatever the amount; leaks and spills happen.

Last November we blogged about some of the available research tools for environmental professionals to use for historical investigations. This November, we’ll add another: The National Response Center’s (NRC) database of oil spills, chemical releases, transportation accidents involving hazardous and radioactive substances, pipeline releases, and more.

Serving as the sole point of contact for leaks and spills, NRC is operated by the U.S. Coast Guard 24/7, 365 days/year and handles the communications for emergency response activities. When such incidents occur NRC enters them into the Incident Reporting Information System which requires standardized information (e.g. material involved, quantity, location and damage) and then distributes the necessary information to select federal agencies. This information then becomes publicly available. Unfortunately, NRC’s website is no longer as user friendly as it once was – the searchable database was taken down in early 2014. You can still access data from 1990-2014, but it is in annual excel files. 

On the bright side, the Center for Effective Government (CEG) also maintains a Spills and Accidents Database which is searchable and includes NRC data from 1982 to 2014. As the Center notes the “data is often used to analyze reports of releases, support emergency planning efforts, and assist decision makers in developing spill prevention programs.” Likewise, data can be used by environmental professionals to evaluate site history. Like TRI it can provide insight into past facility practices (such as chemicals that may have been utilized or present onsite) or incidents that speak to industrial care. However, as CEG caveats: “The reports can be extensive but are also known to be incomplete, as many incidents are never reported, and those that are reported generally are not subject to verification or not updated,” so they should be taken with a grain of salt.

Regardless, they can still prove to be an important asset, although in their current state, unless you use CEG’s tool, you’ll be forced to comb through and search individual years, which can be arduous. On the bright side, it does turn up some surprising and seasonally appropriate results…
Like in 1998 when 850 gallons of “Cool-Whip” spilled at a Kraft facility. No one was injured, but that probably wouldn't be fun to clean up, unless of course you’re using slices of pumpkin pie.
Or in 2004 when a train derailed in Virginia and 20,000 gallons of beer were lost. An accident like that would definitely put a damper on some parties.

So when you’re in the kitchen this Thanksgiving, no matter how crazy it gets, just be thankful you don’t have to cleanup 850 gallons of Cool-Whip!

Happy Holidays from Matson & Associates!

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