Chemical and oil corporations operate facilities all around the United States that threaten millions of Americans with a poison gas disaster, and since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, it has become especially clear to communities at risk, public officials responsible for protecting Americans from disasters, and a blue-green coalition of more than 100 labor, environmental, and public interest organizations that this needs to change.
Comprehensive chemical disaster prevention legislation, like the bill the House of Representatives passed in 2009, would help prevent a chemical disaster by conditionally requiring the highest risk facilities to convert to safer technologies.
Unfortunately, chemical industry lobbyists and their political allies are trying to block chemical disaster prevention legislation, seeking instead to simply perpetuate the status quo in which weak security standards allow these dangerous facilities to threaten millions in New York City, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Chicago, Los Angeles, and countless other communities around the United States.
Unfortunately, instead of working toward meaningful disaster prevention legislation, Susan Collins (R-ME), and Representatives Dan Lungren (R-CA) and Timothy Murphy (R-PA) today introduced three chemical security bills weak enough to earn the support of chemical industry lobbyists. These bills would extend a flawed temporary law that is far from comprehensive and leaves more than 100 million Americans at risk of a chemical disaster in 41 states.
"These bills are belated Valentines to the chemical industry and are an irresponsible distraction from a long overdue comprehensive security program," said Rick Hind, legislative director for Greenpeace. "This legislation fails to require any disaster prevention at the highest risk chemical plants and continues to exempt hundreds of hazardous refineries and water treatment plants."
A recent investigation by ABC Nightly News and the Center for Public Integrity into the dangerous oil refining industry reinforces the critical need for legislation that will protect Americans from the threat of a poison gas disaster. As the investigation shows, 50 oil refineries that use deadly hydrofluoric acid threaten 16 million people with severe injury and death, even though safer alternatives are available. An accident or terrorist attack at some of these facilities would put hundreds of thousands or even millions of people at risk in major cities and communities all around the United States. CPI's investigation also shows that accidents are commonplace at many refineries because lax oversight and weak safety rules allow reckless oil companies like BP to put their profits ahead of worker and community safety.
The tragedies suffered by refinery workers are horrifying, and reveal an industry that is pushing its old refineries to the brink and experiencing frequent accidents that injure and kill; and if the next accident led to the release of deadly hydrofluoric acid, it could be a catastrophe for hundreds of thousands of people. Just last week, an accidental release of hydrofluoric acid at a refinery in Canton, Ohio injured a worker and prompted emergency response; as the Center for Public Integrity reported, the refinery's own report filed with the Environmental Protection Agency shows that "up to 238,000 pounds of HF could be released from the Canton refinery in a worst-case scenario, affecting as many as 940,000 people."
Moreover, these oil refineries are just a part of the problem, and chemical and water treatment plants also present dangerous threats to many communities. Fortunately, hundreds of facilities have already switched to safer processes and technologies, eliminating the risk to 40 million people. Converting facilities often yields cost savings and creates jobs; indeed, an independent analysis of the House passed legislation found that it would create 8,000 jobs each year for the next ten years. And yet, almost ten years after 9/11, many of the highest risk plants are still needlessly putting millions at risk, because chemical and oil corporations are putting their profits ahead of our safety.
Congress needs to stop listening to lobbyists for the chemical and oil industries, and instead put the protection of human lives first.