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Attorneys: Emergencies like Miller Chemical fire can lead to fines, lawsuits

Emergencies involving hazardous material — such as the fire Monday that ravaged the Miller Chemical & Fertilizer LLC plant near Hanover in Adams County — can create liabilities for the companies involved and claims opportunities for other businesses affected by the incident, according to two environmental law attorneys in Central Pennsylvania.

The Miller fire ignited Monday morning and burned throughout the day, causing officials to ask nearby businesses to close and residents to remain sheltered in place until the late afternoon. The fire led to contamination of water in the Conewago Creek, according to the Adams County Department of Emergency Services. 

A spokeswoman for Miller declined to comment Friday morning but said the company planned to issue a news release later today. There have been no legal actions filed against Miller as a result of the incident.

Among other concerns, such an incident could result in a violation of several state and federal environmental laws, including Pennsylvania’s Clean Streams Law and the Solid Waste Management Act, which could lead to civil penalties, as well as orders to clean up damage, said Joel Burcat, an environmental law attorney at Saul Ewing LLP’s Harrisburg office.

If the emergency occurred in a municipality with a municipal-separated storm sewer system, it could create additional regulatory complications, said Alexandra Chiaruttini, an environmental attorney at York-based Stock and Leader LLP. On the other hand, more-rural areas without so-called MS4 requirements often lack the extensive knowledge of where water flows that would be helpful in a contamination emergency.

A company could also face liability for damages when water intakes are affected or shut down, and other potential liability claims could be related to the fish that were killed or any disruption to the tourist economy, Burcat said.

There are specific insurance policies some businesses purchase that can cover environmental cleanup costs, he said.

“If a company has particular environmental issues, very often they’ll carry specialized insurance,” he said.

A business that handles hazardous materials should also develop proper spill prevention plans and take steps before a disaster occurs to limit its reach, including proper storage and handling safeguards and buffers and berms to prevent runoff, Chiaruttini said. Even small businesses that are not required to get a stormwater permit should consider incorporating methods of preventing runoff from their facilities.

In the event an emergency occurs, it is also important for the company to ensure that emergency responders know what they should be doing to contain the pollution, she said.

Other businesses that believe they have been disrupted by an emergency somewhere else may want to consider sending letters through their insurance carriers to the parties responsible, Burcat said. It is common for companies to reach an agreement on compensation without the increased cost and expense of a lawsuit, although a lawsuit is also a “legitimate” way for businesses to interact in these situations.

Waterway concerns

According to a news release Thursday from Adams County Emergency Services, the environmental impact of runoff water from the Miller Chemical site has been “significant.” Well owners are asked to watch for discoloration, although they should not be affected if they have proper casing and are not drawing water from the Conewago Creek.

The Conewago Creek flows into the Susquehanna River at Lock Haven, and Michael Helfrich, the Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper, said he is concerned that chemicals in the water and any retardants used to fight the fire could deprive waterways of oxygen needed for fish.

A critical factor in the disaster’s ultimate impact will be the type of river life most affected, he said. The worst problems occur when plankton, coral and other organisms at the bottom of the food chain are killed, thus depriving other lifeforms of a food source.

“I think this really brings to the forefront a concern that we do have, which is that any time there is a fire, you see lots of water and chemicals running into our local streams. This certainly is the top example of such an event,” he said.

Daniel Walmer

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