Industry-laden Richmond County ranks 35th among more than 3,000 counties nationwide in risks associated with toxic chemical accidents, according to a report released Wednesday.
"It's becoming far too common for people to live closer and closer to these plants," said Robert Pregulman of the Washington-based Public Interest Research Group, an environmental watchdog organization.
Mr. Pregulman visited Augusta to discuss the report, titled Too Close to Home, that ranks Georgia 10th in the nation in terms of its potential for a worst-case disaster.
Richmond County industries store 65 million pounds of the 94 "extremely hazardous substances" listed under state and federal reporting requirements, according to the report, making Augusta Georgia's riskiest county.
Pam Tucker, Richmond County's Emergency Management Agency director, said the figures are not surprising, considering the broad selection of major industries located in Augusta.
However, industries and local government work diligently to communicate risk scenarios and safety programs with people living near major plants. And chemical accidents have actually declined in recent years.
Richmond County industries reported 34 spills in 1995, dropping to 15 in 1996. Last year, seven spills were reported. So far this year, four accidents serious enough to require reporting have occurred.
In terms of community safety programs, most major industries participated in a two-day public presentation at Bell Auditorium last year in which worst-case and more likely accident scenarios were discussed and explained.
The county's Local Emergency Planning Committee routinely sponsors tours and open house events to acquaint residents with safety programs at major industries, she said.
Also, chemical inventories detailing materials kept at various companies are available for public review, both at the companies and at the EMA headquarters downtown, she said.
One of the newest efforts to make Richmond County less vulnerable to injuries from chemical spills will occur in September, when shelter-in-place kits will be offered to people living near East Augusta industries.
The kits, containing duct tape, plastic, bottled water, small radio transmitters and other items, are for use whenever a chemical spill threatens neighborhoods. Often, shelter in place is preferred over evacuation.
Several industries also are investing in a major meteorological monitoring program, in which sophisticated computer modeling equipment is being placed at major industries to monitor wind speed and other factors.
If a spill should occur, the equipment will help decide who, if anyone, should be evacuated or ordered to stay at home. The equipment can also track clouds of escaped fumes and help predict emergency response needs.
Reported chemical spills, year-to-date:
Jan 11: Amoco Polymers, sulfur trioxide, 82 pounds
Jan 17: PCS Nitrogen, ammonia, 2,300 pounds.
March 6: DSM Chemicals, sulfur trioxide (oleum), 500 gallons.
March 29: Huron Tech, liquid sodium chlorate exploded.