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Senate warns of small chemical firms' Y2K status

A Senate committee warns emergency officials across the nation to keep an eye on chemical companies, citing an earlier study that looked at those companies' "lack of Y2K readiness."

A Senate committee yesterday warned emergency officials across the nation to keep an eye on small and medium-sized chemical companies, citing an earlier study that looked at those companies' "lack of Y2K readiness."

The leaders of the Senate Special Committee on the Year 2000 Technology Problem said they are pressing the senior officials of the Federal Emergency Back to Year 2000 Index Page Management Agency (FEMA) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to alert state emergency managers, state emergency response commissions, and local emergency planning committees.

"In the past, we have had very little information about small chemical handlers and manufacturers, and the assumption was made that they were not prepared for Y2K," Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah), chairman of the committee, said in a statement. "To a large degree, that assumption has been confirmed by this in-depth, independent report."

U.S. chemical manufacturing, storage, and transportation is a $392 billion industry. An estimated 85 million Americans live within five miles of one of the 66,000 sites that handle hazardous chemicals, according to the report.

Conducted by the Chemical Engineering Department at Texas A&M University, the report found that 86.5 percent of firms surveyed are not currently prepared for Y2K. Another 85.6 percent have not coordinated emergency plans with local or community officials.

In addition, the report found a majority of the firms have not linked contingency planning to community emergency services such as police, fire and rescue, or hospitals.

"Ensuring the health and safety of our citizens must be our No. 1 Y2K priority", Chris Dodd (D-Connecticut), vice-chairman of the committee, said in a statement. "While the probability of a Y2K-related disruption is low, the potential harm even one chemical accident can cause means we must be especially vigilant."

In addition, the survey said small and medium-sized chemical firms are, in general, "far-removed from technology advances, basic information and know-how, and access to technical and financial resources."

Bennett said that is the case for many small businesses outside the chemical industry as well. And while small business Y2K preparedness is important for the economy, few small businesses in other industries carry the same public safety concerns.

Dr. M. Sam Mannan, director of the Mary Kay O'Connor Process Center and associate professor of chemical engineering at Texas A&M, in a statement said "special emphasis should be given to contingency planning and communications issues, given the lack of preparation time remaining. Sharing contingency planning strategies and coordination with local responders is highly recommended."

A majority of respondents do not belong to industry organizations or trade associations, which have been the primary gatherers of Y2K preparedness information in the private sector. And 4.1 percent said Y2K presents the potential for a catastrophic event, according to the survey.

"Now that we have more information on the chemical industry, individuals and communities can take reasonable steps to prepare for Y2K," said Bennett. "I would urge community emergency planners and local chemical firms to work together toward ensuring a smooth and safe transition to the new year."