Currently, one in three people in the US live within the danger zone of a chemical facility that stores poison gasses. The chemical industry could use safer alternatives, but they are refusing to take action. Luckily the Obama Administration is considering using its authority under the Clean Air Act to require dangerous facilities to swtich to safer alternatives—the best way to prevent a disaster.
If released by an industrial accident or by a terrorist these chemicals could cause a catastrophe leaving thousands killed or injured, like the Bhopal Disaster of 1984. According to EPA, around 480 chemical facilitie s each put 100,000 or more people at risk in the communities surrounding their fenceline, as well as the workers within the plants. One of the nation's biggest vulnerabilities to terrorists, The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has identified more than 4,000 chemical facilities as "high-risk." The EPA has identified about 90 chemical plants that each put one million or more people at risk up to 25 miles downwind from a plant. The U.S. Army Surgeon General estimated that an attack on just one U.S. chemical plant could kill or injure 900,000 to 2.4 million people. Despite numerous warnings since 2001, Congress has done little to neutralize these hazards.
The good news is that there are many cost-effective, safer chemical processes already in use that eliminate these risks without sacrificing jobs. Since 9/11, more than 220 plants have switched to safer alternatives. Clorox announced in 2009 that they were planning on converting all of their plants so they will no longer use large quantities of deadly chlorine gas. As of 2011, they have completed the transition.
But that’s not what most chemical companies have done. Instead they’re relying on guards, gates and gadgets that have been shown to be ineffective against terrorists and will do nothing to prevent Bhopal magnitude accidents. The most ironclad way to ensure the safety of people living in the shadow of dangerous chemical plants is to require the plants to convert to the safest available chemical processes. Once safer processes are in use, the plant will no longer be an attractive target or pose a catastrophic accident risk. The largest shipper of these dangerous chemicals, the railroads, also favors legislation to require chemical plants to use safer processes.
President Obama Can Be the Solution
Because Congress has failed to act, in 2011 a coalition of over 100 labor, environmental justice, health, public interest, and environmental organizations sent a letter to President Obama asking him to authorize the EPA to use their Clean Air Act authority require disaster prevention at these facilities. In October 2011 the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council, which includes members of civil society and industry, endorsed that action, following with a letter to EPA Adminstrator Lisa Jackson in March of 2012. Hot on the heels of the NEJAC recommendation in April 2012, Governor Christine Todd Whitman (R), the EPA Administrator under President Bush, sent a letter to Administrator Jackson, endorsing the NEJAC recommendation and urging immediate action to protect communities from dangerous chemical plants. Greenpeace again joined our allies by sending a second letter to President Obama urging action.
In a joint press-conference, members of this coalition came together with Governor Whitman to support the EPA moving forward with using authority under the Clean Air Act to enforce safer standards for chemical facilities. Thanks to our supporters and our allied organizations in July, 2012, the coalition will present a petition of more than 50,000 signatures to the White House, demonstrating that the people at risk want action from the White House.
History of Legislation
In 2006, Congress passed a very weak temporary chemical security law. This law was written with the help of industry lobbyists and as a result it actually prohibits the government from requiring the use of safer chemical processes. It also exempts 2,400 water treatment plants and 500 chemical port facilities (including the majority of refineries). Not surprisingly, this law has the support of Dow Chemical and other industry giants that would rather see it made permanent.
For the first time since 9/11, the White House supports legislation that would prevent chemical disasters. The Obama administration’s Homeland Security and EPA have repeatedly asked Congress for the authority to require high-risk plants to use safer chemical processes.
On November 6, 2009, the House of Representatives approved the "Chemicaland Water Security Act," (H.R. 2868). This is the first time since 9/11 that either body of Congress has approved a comprehensive chemical security bill. An independent economic analysis found that this bill will also create 8,000 new jobs and stimulate local economies. See the report:
Unfortunately, even though Senator Lautenberg (D-NJ) introduced strong legislation in the Senate, the legislation died before getting to the Senate floor. Congress was forced to extend the previous policy, which maintains the rather lackluster requirements that do little to protect the American people from chemical threats within their own borders.
Take action to help get strong legislation passed in the Senate.
A History of Legislation on Chemical Security
See videos of Obama and Biden on chemical security at:
- New York Times editorial
- The Washington Monthly
- Huffington Post
- The Huffington Post
- Roll Call