FOX10 News Investigates: Chemicals Exposed

There are nearly 100 petrochemical storage tanks operating along the Mobile River near downtown Mobile. Is there any accountability for the chemicals that are stored inside? (Credit: Franz Barraza, WALA FOX10 News)

A FOX10 News investigation into storage tank farms along the Mobile River has led one corporation to correct errors in the reporting of toxic chemical storage.

FOX10 News uncovered a lack of checks and balances with a federally required reporting system, known as Tier Two reports, which explains to emergency responders, and nearby neighbors, what hazardous materials are being stored in the tanks at the chemical storage facilities.

After an Extensive investigation through state and federal databases, FOX10 News found it’s an on-your-honor system for the companies to report what's there, and companies can easily misreport the chemicals they are storing.

One company operating a tank farm on the Mobile River did just that.

FOX10 News found Arc Terminals submitted an incorrect Tier Two report to local emergency responders, state, and federal agencies, about its storage of sulfuric acid in 2015.

Because of that, Arc has now resubmitted its Tier Two reports correctly, acknowledging its storage of sulfuric acid throughout 2015.

“FOX10 News Investigates: Chemicals Exposed” uncovers the gaps in regulations for chemical storage companies, showing tank farms on the Gulf Coast can store hazardous materials for months without any local, state, or federal agency receiving any information about it, which could put emergency responders, and the community nearby, at risk.

Why is it important to know what’s in the tanks?

In the last three years, at least 70 explosions or fires have occurred nationwide involving petrochemical storage tanks.

At least 25 people have been killed, and 233 others were injured in those incidents.

In downtown Mobile, there are nearly 100 petrochemical storage tanks operating within seven different facilities along the mobile river.

"Why would our city want to put hazards like that in our community?" asked Mae Jones, a resident of the Africatown community, which is nestled close to the tank farms along the river.

Jones fears disaster could be around the corner.

“There are plenty of places for those tank farms, where those tank farms could go, that would not endanger a community,” she said. “You're going to put it right across the street from a school, and a community?"

So, FOX10 News wanted to know, are Mobile County officials properly prepared to respond to a potential disaster at any of the tank farms operating on the Mobile River? Are the communities nearby at risk?

Mobile Fire Rescue Deputy Fire Chief Ken Keller said his crews rely on Tier Two reports and their own yearly site visits to prepare.

“If it does happen, we're going to make sure our people are trained, that they're familiar with the plant, what's going on in there, and then if something does happen, we have all the resources that we can to pull together and go ahead and mitigate whatever is there,” Keller explained.

Keller said proper chemical reporting is important, because it informs them of what hazardous materials are on site.

"Based on what's in that facility is going to decide how we try to mitigate that problem,” said Keller.

Lack of checks and balances

The companies are required to fill out the Tier Two reports on their honor and send them out to the emergency agencies that need them.

The EPA said it is required to make sure the companies are reporting their chemicals correctly, but it can only check 100 sites a year across eight states in the southeast region.

According to the US Census Bureau, there are more than 450 chemical storage facilities in that region.

So, many facilities are able to fly under the radar, which was the case for one facility in Mobile.

The Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) also lists what materials are stored in each tank at the facilities during its periodical site inspections.

However, ADEM has not responded to our questions about how those inspections are conducted, or how often.

Arc Terminals and the complete story of its sulfuric acid storage

Arc Terminals is a petroleum product storage company operating two facilities on the Mobile River.

In February 2015, Arc’s manager, Allen Rentz, called ADEM to ask if it would be okay to store 3.8 million gallons of sulfuric acid on its Blakeley Island property.

ADEM told Rentz “it would not be covered under his current General Permit,” according to documents filed by ADEM, and that the company would need to apply for a new permit to house the chemical legally.

So, Arc applied for a new permit.

But, in April 2015, documents filed by ADEM show Arc spilled about 30 gallons of sulfuric acid on the Blakeley property.

ADEM document show ADEM helped Arc clean up the “sulphuric acid contaminate waste” after the spill.

However, that same week, documents show ADEM also gave arc a draft copy of its permit to house the sulfuric acid, which means the company still wasn't legally allowed to store the sulfuric acid on site, because its permit was still only a draft, and not yet officially approved by ADEM.

FOX10 News scoured ADEM’s eFile database for days, looking for any evidence that ADEM could have followed up with Arc after the sulfuric acid spill.

But, there were no documents that showed ADEM completed any site visits or inspections after the incident.

Instead, FOX10 News found documents showing ADEM continued to follow through with the permitting process for Arc.

Meanwhile, Arc also went to the city of Mobile to get a city permit for the sulfuric acid storage, and in August 2015, the city council asked Arc point-blank if the company was already storing sulfuric acid there, to which arc admitted it had since February.

At the time, Rentz said the company followed state and federal guidelines to store the sulfuric acid, and called the discrepancy a mix-up.

“We regret any miscommunication around the storage of this product at our terminal,” said Rentz in August 2015.

However, after weeks of digging through ADEM’s database, FOX10 News found Rentz's statement that his company followed state guidelines wasn't true, as ADEM even sent Arc documents reprimanding the company for the sulfuric acid storage, and the federal Tier Two reports we obtained show Arc did not follow some federal guidelines either.

The Tier Two reports submitted by Arc show the company did not report sulfuric acid in any of its facilities in 2015.

So, after scouring ADEM's database extensively, and checking the federal documents we obtained, FOX10 News found through the course of seven months - despite a sulfuric acid spill on site - Arc apparently stored the corrosive chemical within the confines of its facility without any local, state, or federal official receiving a filing about it.

So emergency personnel would not have been aware that a dangerous chemical - which, according to a safety sheet filed by Arc, is "extremely irritating and corrosive" to the skin and eyes, and "highly toxic" to inhale - is sitting on a property they could have to respond to.

Rentz signed his name on those Tier Two reports, underneath a line that writes: "I certify under penalty of law that I have personally examined and am familiar with the information submitted... and... I believe that the submitted information is true, accurate, and complete."

Now, Arc has admitted to FOX10 news it did submit an incorrect tier two report, and has resubmitted it, correctly labeling its storage of more than 10 million pounds of sulfuric acid on average in 2015.

Need for stricter regulation?

Still to this day, city council members admit, there isn't a lot of knowledge about what's really being stored in any of the chemical storage facilities on the Mobile River.

“If you go down to Mobile River starting from Downtown to Africatown, hundreds of tanks. We don't know what's in any of them. We don't know. They didn't tell anybody, ain't nobody ask them,” said City Councilman Fred Richardson.

The Mobile County Health Officer, Dr. Bert Eichold, feels ADEM and the EPA need to crack down harder on these tank farms.

“You need to be prepared just like a hurricane or a tornado, I think we all need to be prepared for the unexpected, and we need to try to encourage the regulatory authorities, being ADEM and EPA, to please keep a close eye on it,” said Dr. Eichold.

The people who live close to these chemical storage facilities are also demanding accountability.

They feel if one facility can store a toxic chemical on its property for months without filing, so could others.

“If they're going to come in, you should at least make them more responsible, be more responsible,” said Mobile resident Joe Womack. “Explosions do happen, you can't say that they're never going to happen."

EPA to evaluate Arc Terminals following FOX10 News investigation

The EPA said it will "evaluate the compliance status of Arc terminals, in consideration of the information (FOX10 News) ha(s) shared with the agency to determine what, if any, actions are necessary and appropriate."

FOX10 News has also issued a Freedom of Information Act request to the EPA for copies of any Tier Two reporting site visits conducted at the tank farms on the Mobile River, but we are yet to receive those documents.

Meanwhile, Rentz replied to a list of questions submitted to Arc with the following statements:

Arc Statement: “Tier II reports are one tool used by Local Emergency Planning Commissions (LEPC) and local Fire Departments to identify what materials are being stored at a facility to better prepare for an emergency at the facility. We filed our Tier II report for the Blakeley Terminal in 2016, when it was due, after all the Sulfuric Acid had been removed from the property and at a time when no sulfuric acid was expected to ever be back on the property. Since filing the Tier II report we have updated the report to state that sulfuric acid was previously held on site but that it was also previously removed from the site, which is a fact that these agencies already knew from previous reporting and which will have no impact on their emergency planning.”

FOX10 News Question: In August 2015, Allen Rentz said the company followed all state and federal guidelines to store the sulfuric acid at its Blakely facility and apologized for the “miscommunication.” Does the company still stand by this position?

Arc Statement: “Arc's storage and subsequent removal of sulfuric acid at the Blakeley Terminal was an issue from last year that we have not revisited and do not intend to repeat.”

FOX10 News Question: Does Arc believe it wrongfully or illegally housed sulfuric acid for seven months in 2015 at its Blakeley facility?

Arc Statement: “Arc's storage and subsequent removal of sulfuric acid at the Blakeley Terminal was an issue from last year that we have not revisited and do not intend to repeat.”

FOX10 News Question: Does Arc believe it put emergency responders at potential risk by housing the sulfuric acid there without certain agencies knowing about it?

Arc Statement: “No.”

FOX10 News Question: Has the EPA conducted a Tier Two EPCRA site visit at any of its facilities in Mobile County in the last five years?

Arc Statement: “No, but the EPA has conducted other types of site visits in the last five years.”

FOX10 News Question: Does Arc believe there are any gaps in the checks and balances that regulate what petrochemical storage companies are allowed to store in the tanks?

Arc Statement: “No.”

FOX10 News also reached out to ADEM for a comment, but have not received a response.

In the meantime, if you would like to see a breakdown of the Tier Two documents and what's reported to be in the tanks at each of the seven chemical storage facilities on the Mobile River, click here.

All content © 2016, WALA; Mobile, AL. (A Meredith Corporation Station). All Rights Reserved.


Investigative Reporter

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