Celebrating 25 Years of Community Right-to-Know

By Bill Finan

In the mid-1980s, I was surprised to hear stories about firefighters being injured and sometimes killed when they entered a fire scene that included chemicals. Those firefighters were brave and wanted to save lives, but they had not been trained to understand chemical hazards.

Just as firefighters often did not know what chemicals were in a burning building, or how the chemicals could harm them, it would have been difficult for the average person to know what toxic chemicals were in their neighborhoods. But after a series of deaths and injuries because of accidental chemical releases, Americans demanded to have information about chemicals in their community. EPA’s Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA) and the motto, “If you don’t know, you don’t go,” adopted by firefighters in 1986 resulted from that public outcry.

I was part of EPA’s initial implementation of EPCRA. I understood and championed its main goal that would allow average citizens and experts in the community aware of nearby toxic chemicals to analyze how great the chemical risk is and what to do about it. EPCRA provides information about what chemicals are stored, used, and made in your community and what toxic chemicals are being released in your community too. It also helps emergency responders, like police and firefighters, plan for events where there may be life and death decisions based on the information provided by EPCRA.

EPCRA requires the establishment of state and local planning organizations made up of environmental, public health, transportation, and emergency management experts; as well as industry, police and fire departments, elected officials, news media and concerned citizens. Plus facilities must notify to local, state and EPA officials on where and how chemicals are stored and in what quantities, and if there is a chemical accident. Lastly, many facilities must report every year to EPA on releases of close to 600 toxic chemicals. These requirements empower you and your community to make informed decisions to better protect your health and your environment.

Over the last 25 years, I have been proud to continue to work on EPCRA issues and watch it evolve to help raise toxic chemical awareness and improve planning efforts. I believe that EPCRA has made American’s safer from toxic chemical accidents and I look forward to another 25 years of EPCRA.

Learn more about what we have accomplished with EPCRA

About the author: Bill Finan has been working for EPA since 1986 and helped write many of the EPA documents related to EPCRA.

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