Fires or explosions like the one at a fertilizer plant in Texas this spring could be exacerbated by problems simply knowing what chemicals are in a building. Under the federal Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act, companies must create an inventory of what hazardous chemicals they are using, storing, or releasing. But a Reuters report has concluded that this system — in which facilities must provide what's known as a Tier II report to local and state emergency response officials — is hamstrung by incomplete reporting, haphazard enforcement, and poor auditing.

After looking at Tier II reports from recent years, Reuters found "dozens" of errors, some of which ended up in public databases or ended up confusing emergency response teams. In one case, a chemical plant in Illinois caught fire and released a plume of toxic chemicals, causing an evacuation in the surrounding areas. Despite the presence of chlorine gas and other potentially hazardous materials, the company hadn't mentioned them in a report, meaning that firefighters didn't have prior warning about what they faced.

Some companies don't file at all, and others report the wrong chemicals

Though no one was hurt in that case, Reuters found that another firefighter suffered caustic burns after shutting a leaking valve at a Kentucky Carhartt plant, not knowing that the plant was storing chlorine — the facility hadn't reported its presence. The EPA has said that state and county officials must check over filings, and that it's identified 95 companies that failed to report correctly. Despite that, Reuters says that many errors have slipped through, and that both the EPA and state officials are lackadaisical in their oversight efforts. Local departments may also not have the resources for a robust auditing program.

The obvious problem is finding out that a seemingly innocuous facility stored harmful chemicals, but the opposite problem can also end up hurting emergency response efforts. In some cases, companies report the wrong chemicals or report chemicals that are no longer stored, causing firefighters or other first responders to hang back because of a possible leak or explosion. That means a fire that could have been safely extinguished may be allowed to burn out, putting more people and property at risk. "Most of these fire departments just don't have time to get to all of those inspections," says US Chemical Safety Board specialist Mark Kaszniak, "so they rely on the Tier II data to tell them what's there."