WASHINGTON – Reported oil and chemical spills in Maryland fell by half over the past five years, according to a Capital News Service analysis of Environmental Protection Agency data.
The number of incidents reported in the state under the Emergency Response Notification System, or ERNS, fell from 923 reports in 1994 to 458 in 1998. Nationwide, by contrast, reports to ERNS increased slightly during roughly the same period, from 37,857 in 1993 to 38,305 in 1997.
The Maryland numbers were welcomed by industry officials in the state as proof of improving environmental awareness by businesses.
“If anything, reporting is now more stringent than it ever was. If you’re seeing a decline, it’s because companies have made tremendous efforts and spent great deals of money to improve environmental performance,” said Roy Vaillant, an administrator with the Chemical Industry Council of Maryland.
But environmental groups questioned the reliability of the ERNS database and, worse, said they fear that spills are still occurring but are just not being reported as often.
“Our guess is that a lot of companies in Maryland aren’t reporting as much as they should,” said Terry Harris, director of the Clean-Up Coalition. His group was formed after several chemical accidents in South Baltimore in the last year, including an October explosion at the Condea Vista chemical plant.
The EPA called the ERNS database “a cooperative data-sharing effort” between it, the National Response Center and several programs in the Department of Transportation. It said that since ERNS started in 1986, “more that 350,000 release notifications of oil discharges and hazardous substance release notifications have been entered.”
But critics say ERNS is little more than a log of incoming calls, covering everything from serious industrial chemical spills to citizens’ reports of odd smells or milky substances in their neighborhood. The results of any follow-up investigations are not recorded in ERNS, they say, and since ERNS simply compiles initial reports, misspellings abound, making analysis difficult.
A review of the database reveals that it includes calls ranging from chemical companies or gas stations self-reporting spills of thousands of gallons of hazardous materials to a spill of 8,000 gallons of milk from an overturned tractor-trailer.
ERNS has also caught some unlikely polluters in its net: The Chesapeake Bay Foundation was reported for a leak of an unknown quantity of oil that was traced to a foundation work boat that sank.
“(ERNS) is not exactly precise,” said Harris. “The data is just not really very good, so we don’t rely on it much.”
Harris said he fears the spills are simply not being reported.
“I think there is a lot of covering up of information. A lot of the companies have an interest in not reporting” accidents, as it might open them up to greater enforcement, he said.
But Vaillant, whose council represents about 50 member groups across the state, including chemical manufacturers, distributors, contractors and carriers, said such charges are baseless.
“There are groups with agendas — and they attack,” he said of the charges.
“The penalties are very severe for not (reporting an accident). In this day and age, it would be stupid to cover up a spill,” he said.
But Harris said Maryland needs to re-evaluate and better fund its environmental emergency response strategy. He pointed to a meeting last week that his group, Baltimore firefighters and Maryland Department of the Environment officials held with their counterparts in West Virginia, who the EPA cited as especially effective in their reporting and response plans.
The meeting was arranged by EPA regional headquarters in Philadelphia, Harris said.
For all its weaknesses, however, ERNS is still a worthwhile tool for groups planning spill prevention and response, said Paul Orum, coordinator for the Working Group on Community Right to Know.
“For proactive accident prevention, one needs organized information and ERNS is part of the picture,” he said.