How the EPA is preparing for a “major breach” of chemical spill

Unfortunate news: Five miles from CNN’s New York City offices and Times Square HQ is a huge leak in an underground tunnel that could cause toxic fumes, chemical contamination, and toxic flash flooding within a few days. The area is a commercial zone, where the EPA has declared an air quality emergency, and a federal task force is now investigating how to clean up the mess.

This leak is reminiscent of another leak, linked to a nearby a testing company, in 2010. In that case, the EPA was able to mitigate the contamination in a timely fashion. I suggest that it might be highly instructive for the EPA to learn from the 2012 FDNY New York City Codeine/Narcotic Laboratories Emergency Response Plan and the 2004 FDNY Hyperchlorine/Narcotic Laboratories Emergency Response Plan.

The codeine/narcotic labs plan and the hyperchlorine/narcotic labs plan provide important lessons for EPA’s efforts to respond to post-BREXIT “lab leaks.”

First, the FDNY safety plans outline immediate actions to limit the impact of a leak. The codeine/narcotic labs plan advises both the EPA and New York City to use the New York Fire Department “material in emergency response plans.” It advises the FDNY to cut the air supply to the production facility of all products manufactured there to avoid spreading the chemical vapors throughout the neighborhood. It also instructs the FDNY to notify neighboring businesses of the “hazard” of potential poisoning and instructs the FDNY to ensure that firehouses, hospitals, and police stations are updated on the situation.

Second, the two codesine/narcotic labs plans include robust measures of the possible actions to respond to a leak. The FDNY codeine/narcotic labs plan provides information on long-term local and national medical planning, describing steps for emergency evacuations, as well as a “safety accountability plan” for maintaining “trusted contacts” to conduct cleanups and remediation. The FDNY action plan establishes procedures for contacting the EPA should the fire department or EPA’s Fire Chief decide to take action. The FDNY codeine/narcotic labs plan provides information on efforts to secure the site for unknown contamination, including the possibility of targeted treatment and removal of hazardous wastes.

Third, the codeine/narcotic labs plan details a catastrophic cleanup that involves air-tight containment of the contamination, planning for radiological cleanup that could possibly require removal of the entire facility, and ultimately, a decontamination process for non-hazardous residue. The FDNY codeine/narcotic labs plan contains an exhaustive list of ground-level remediation procedures, estimated to take more than two years.

Fourth, the FDNY codeine/narcotic labs plan provides details on what precautions to take to guard against damage to real property associated with the spill. This includes plans for protecting public access and the streets and workplaces in the immediate vicinity, as well as sites outside the affected area. The plan provides a comprehensive description of the alternative use of the affected area; mitigation steps for the further areas near the source; and evacuation routes to avoid containment areas and to help mitigate adverse effects on health.

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