Hazardous materials events by mode, 2000 to 2010

I’ve been fiddling around with the data on serious hazardous materials spills, and I used R to make a graphic that shows the differences in spill frequency by class.

Voila Capture14

The serious spills are distributed among hazardous materials classes similar to the prevalence of their shipping, with one exception. Corrosive materials (Class 8 ) are somewhat more represented in serious spills than in the entire spills record. Because there are so few spills from water transport, those are not illustrated. Infrequent hazardous material classes are also omitted from the figures.

A contrast of the two mosaic plots shows that rail and air modes have caused proportionately more evacuation events than highway shipping for both flammable (class 3) and corrosive materials ( class 8 ). This result is likely due to the volumes that can be transported by these modes, relative to a single truck. The reverse is true for events causing environmental damage, which could be a result of separation of rail and air facilities from other land uses. This separation contrasts with highways, which are more geographically dispersed and come in closer contact with environmentally sensitive areas. Here again, however, corrosive materials are proportionately over-represented among serious spills.

The mosaicplots are made in the R package vcd.

Yang Zhang on Environmental Hazards and Housing Choice

Virginia Tech’s Yang Zhang has an interesting manuscript in this issue of the Journal of Planning Education and Research on housing choice and risk perception.

Zhang, Y. 2010. Residential housing choice in a multihazard environment: Implications for natural hazards mitigation and community environmental justice. Journal of Planning Education and Research. doi:10.1177/0739456X10381386.

This study examines residents’ housing decisions in a multihazard environment (flood, hurricane, and toxic chemicals). The combination of a hedonic price model and a household survey conducted in Harris County, Texas, indicates that flood hazard was an important factor in households’ housing decisions, but not hurricane and toxic materials hazards. The results have further suggested that home buyers were poorly informed about hurricane and toxic materials hazards when housing decisions were made and came to understand their vulnerability only while living in hazard-prone neighborhoods. Moreover, it appears that low-income households and minorities were the least-informed group in the housing market. These findings provide implications for using hazard information programs to promote community resilience to natural hazards and community environmental justice.

There are some things you can quibble with here: for some reason, the study includes a poorly defined access measure (perceived importance of accessibility)–which I can’t imagine survey respondents answering in a consistent way—and little else about housing characteristics in a hedonic specification. That leaves the study open to criticism about latent variables. Is lack of access (or having access) really a deal-breaker in this Texas County? How much difference in supply does one have to choose from in the housing markets, no matter how much difference there might be in preference?

Nonetheless, the idea is a good one, and his point is more about the difficulties of housing choice in markets about multiple hazards, at least a couple of which are low-probability hazards, when information is not cost-free.

The problem with leaving out the rest of what would be a fuller specification is that we could also explain differences in willingness to accept housing in hazard-prone area by other factors, such as relative school quality. Or a preference ordering of hazards, based on information preferences (or not): so some aspects of air quality are hyped over and over, but information about toxic events is harder to come by and the events are low-profile and infrequent, so households locate according to one set of information but not the other—and even risk people can’t seem to agree on which is the more important source of risk: locating near small but chronic hazards or near low-probability larger hazards.

Environmental justice (?) in Bhopal

On Thursday, a judge in Bhopal, 25 years after the fact, issued an arrest warrant for the former boss of Union Carbide.

The Union Carbide disaster was one of the most significant moments in the history of both enviromentalism and environmental justice. I’ve written extensively about the need for reparative justice for Bhopal, but even I was unprepared for crowds beating an effigy of an 90 year-old man, no matter what he symbolizes, at this event. There is no forgiveness, however, without reparation; there may never be forgiveness regardless of reparative acts. Forgiveness is a gift, not an entitlement, and if you are going to make the CEO salary, you had probably better be ready to take on the big consequences of what your organization does.

There are so many questions in the Bhopal case remaining. Is it even reparative to pay $500 million to a national government when the effects were localized? Given the scope of human misery, $500 million seems very little. in comparison to the billions paid out for bailouts.

I wish I had something profound to say here, but I do not. This is a situation that simply defies justice.

Ethanol explosion

One of the topics I study is hazardous materials transport, so this accident on Sunday caught my eye. Deaths to nonemployees are extremely rare in the hazmat world–engineering has done an amazing job with hazmat containers. Nonetheless, these types of evacuations are more common than we think. I have a new study coming out (I hope soon) describing the spatial distribution of severe hazmat events, like evacuations. Stay tuned.