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‘Wakeup call’: Braintree chemical fire, Ohio derailment show need for stronger emergency planning, experts say

A view of the fire scene in Braintree at Clean Harbors facility.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

After several trailers storing chemical materials at a waste disposal facility in Braintree caught fire last month, firefighters who rushed to the scene found the closest fire hydrant was not working. Neither was the one inside the facility.

In those critical moments before firefighters found a working hydrant in the property next door, the blaze had already spread from two trailers to four, Braintree Fire Chief James O’Brien said at a Town Council meeting last month.

“Who’s testing those hydrants? Why would that happen?” Town Councilor Elizabeth Maglio said in an interview. “Of all places for hydrants to not work, it would be in the areas that are most flammable.”

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Preliminary findings suggested that materials in the trailers self-reacted and caused the fire on Feb. 16, according to a statement from Clean Harbors, the hazardous waste management company that runs the facility.

These types of toxic releases occur about 150 times each year at industrial and chemical facilities across the United States, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The Braintree incident, coming on the heels of the Feb. 3 derailment of a train carrying hazardous materials in East Palestine, Ohio, showed how towns left to clean up the mess from chemical accidents are not always prepared.

“It’s only a matter of time before another major accident like this happens,” said Mike Schade, director of the Mind the Store program at environmental advocacy group Toxic-Free Future. “This really should be a wakeup call for American families to understand that chemical hazards exists all around us.”

In the Braintree accident, Maglio said one of the most concerning aspects was that the town alerted residents to the fire through a Facebook post and not the reverse 911 robocall that is supposed to warn people about emergency situations.

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“If there’s a fiery smoky blast, we’re not checking Facebook to find out,” Maglio said, adding that “nobody knows” what the town’s evacuation plan is nor what to do during a chemical accident.

Since several flammable facilities are located in the area, including a nearby natural gas compressor station in Weymouth, Maglio said Braintree urgently needs a better emergency response system.

The Braintree mayor’s office did not respond to repeated requests for comment about why the town did not use the reverse 911 robocall, what the town’s current emergency plan looks like, and when it was last updated.

Maglio said the current version of Braintree’s emergency response plan doesn’t focus on preventing chemical disasters, and instead acts as an evacuation plan.

“The draft is inadequate, insufficient, and does little to make anybody feel safer,” Maglio said.

Government officials don’t pay enough attention to preventing accidents due to a lack of funding devoted to such efforts, said Judith Enck, a former EPA regional administrator now president of environmental advocacy group Beyond Plastics.

And communication around evacuation plans is an issue across the nation, she said.

Almost 124 million people, or 39 percent of the US population, live within 3 miles of a hazardous facility, according to the Coalition to Prevent Chemical Disasters.

“People living near train tracks need to be informed of the risks and [be] ready for how to deal with an emergency like this,” Enck said.

Regulatory agencies should inform residents about what hazardous substances are being handled or transported near them, she said, and train cars carrying chemicals should be labeled clearly.

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Another issue, Enck said, is that there is not enough regulatory oversight of high-hazard facilities, with EPA inspectors visiting once every several years.

“It’s a rare day that an inspector shows up to see what is unfolding,” she said. “The facility is usually told the day before if someone is coming.”

In a statement to the Globe, the EPA said it conducts more than 300 inspections on facilities each year nationally.

In Braintree, Maglio said officials in previous emergency planning committees have never held Clean Harbors responsible for preventing accidents.

“Part of the emergency evacuation planning is to make sure that the companies are operating the way they’re supposed to be, and that you don’t get those kinds of surprises,” Maglio said.

One way regulatory agencies, such as the EPA, attempt to keep facilities responsible for preventing chemical accidents is requiring high-hazard facilities are required to submit a risk management plan.

But Maglio said when local officials take jurisdiction over reviewing these plans, high-hazard facilities are let off easily despite submitting incomprehensive plans.

Clean Harbors’ emergency response plan still lists Quincy Medical Center as a location for injured residents to receive medical aid, even though the hospital closed in 2014, Maglio said.

When an accident does occur, some experts say, government agencies should expand their testing for health hazards in affected areas beyond just air quality. In Braintree, some residents on Facebook worried whether it was safe to return to the area of the fire, though authorities cleared it within hours and monitored the air for days.

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“After three or four days, I would think that most of the airborne pollutants would have dissipated,” said Phillip Landrigan, program director of Boston College’s Global Observatory on Planet Health. “But my concern is that there could still be toxic materials in the dust and in the dirt at the site.”

Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection staff monitored air quality from Feb. 17 through 24, according to a statement from spokesperson Fabienne Alexis, but did not mention testing soil or water quality.

But Schade said accidental chemical emissions can contaminate household furniture too.

“Oftentimes household dust can be a sink or reservoir for chemicals in your home,” Schade said. “That’s one of the reasons why we believe that [authorities] should be screening, testing for dioxins and other byproducts in indoor dust to evaluate whether or not these chemicals may be present in people’s homes.”

Despite the burden on local governments, state and federal governments should also work to minimize accidents, Schade said, such as by phasing out the production of plastics, which are made up of substances that are risky to transport and produce. The Ohio train that derailed last month was carrying vinyl chloride, a highly flammable and volatile substance used to make hard plastic resin.

“Advocates, workers, government officials have been calling for stronger rules to prevent major disasters at chemical plants,” Schade said. “Unfortunately, the regulations that have been developed so far don’t give the EPA the tools that it needs to more tightly regulate to prevent accidents.”

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Ashley Soebroto can be reached at ashley.soebroto@globe.com. Follow her @ashsoebroto.