Chemical Spill Expert WitnessAccording to a May 2014 report, several serious chemical spills and leaks occur in the United States every week. Furthermore, over 134 million Americans live in spill danger zones, surrounding the 3,433 facilities that use or store highly toxic chemicals.[1] Several toxic spills have already occurred this year. One spill of note was in West Virginia, when a coal-cleaning chemical contaminated the local water for 300,000 residents. Another chemical release occurred in the U.S. Capitol Building, where an asbestos leak forced the House of Representatives to convene elsewhere. Finally, just this month, a valve leak and explosion occurred in West Virginia.  Clearly, chemical spills are of increasing concern, and much work is needed to assess how to prevent them, how to address them once they occur, and what to do in the aftermath. Environmental expert witnesses play a key role in all these phases.

Environmental experts are involved in every step of a chemical release, from planning how to handle chemicals safely to giving opinions during litigation after spills occur. Experts play a role in helping advise companies on ways to reduce the frequency and mitigate the damage of chemical releases. For example, using a method called Inherently Safer Technologies (IST), experts and toxicologists help chemical plants transition to using less dangerous chemicals, which can help to mitigate damages should a spill occur and litigation ensue. In addition, experts can assist in ensuring that both employees and communities are fully involved in prevention efforts and planning. Current federal regulations do not require chemical companies to determine whether the chemicals they use could be replaced with safer alternatives. This gap in legislation leaves room for litigation, as attorneys can argue that companies could have exercised a higher level of care than they did, and experts can speak to whether or not a given corporation could or should have switched to an IST.

There are several ways in which the chemical industry can help to manage chemicals and mitigate the damages that spills create. Environmental experts can help safeguard the public health by offering their services in assessing various hazards, working towards better release prevention and release control technologies, and improving efforts to notify the public and remedy the damages. Once a chemical release occurs, figuring out whether each of these steps has been addressed may determine if and to what extent a company may be liable for harms associated with a spill. Experts help companies determine the best ways to manage and dispose of the chemicals they use. Among their many duties, experts’ casework often involves analyzing the pathways of exposure and dose reconstruction, to determine the nature and extent of damage from a spill. It is a complex and difficult job to assess the environmental consequences from chemical accidents. Often, what is needed is a measurement of the chemical and physical variables, such as concentration of the chemical, to evaluate the environmental effects of a particular chemical release. One tool used by environmental experts to help assess all these variables is called an Environment-Accident Index (EAI). This tool enables experts to consider wide ranges of variables and accident scenarios and improves the precision of their calculations. Chemical and hazardous material experts play many roles, from pretrial planning to testimony to damage mitigation. These experts are invaluable both as consultants and later as testifying witnesses. Consulting includes helping to conduct chemical analyses, evaluate chemical accidents, and address chemical plant safety. Testimony from chemical experts can be provided about the nature, patterns, and danger of every chemical that is used. Experts can also produce reports on chemical processing, recovery, and risk assessments.

A growing technology in the chemical accidents field is called chemical fingerprinting, which involves conducting chemical spill forensics to determine the pathways, nature, extent, and source of a spill. Chemical fingerprinting is frequently used in litigation associated with chemical spills, and environmental experts are precisely the individuals who can undertake the complex biochemical tasks involved and explain their findings to attorneys, judges, and juries. As the need for more sophisticated techniques in pollution forensic chemistry increases, so does the corresponding need for experts to interpret raw data and provide testimony for both plaintiffs and defendants.

Because chemical accidents are so frequent and can be so severe, environmental expert witnesses are needed to guide both potential plaintiffs and defendants in analyzing and mitigating the impacts of chemical spills. Environmental experts offer the ability to translate highly complex scientific and technical terms for judges, juries, and parties. These experts can interpret technical information to help attorneys find direction when pursuing settlement or litigation issues that involve chemical accidents. Whether providing advice to companies, explaining a spill modeling technique to a court, or assessing damages related to a claim, environmental expert witnesses play a key role in addressing the legal and environmental issues pertaining to chemical accidents.

By: Kat S. Hatziavramidis, Attorney-at-Law

[1] “A Demographic Analysis of Chemical Disaster Vulnerability Zones,” Coming Clean, May 2014, Web August 19, 2014