What $20 Million Buys the Chemical Industry in Washington

by Emily Zurawski

July 19, 2016

Chemical facilities endanger millions of Americans every day — and the chemical industry is spending millions of dollars to keep it that way.

Toxics Petitions to the White House

Activists outside the White House in Washington, D.C., July 26, 2012 after delivering 60,000 petitions calling on President Obama to impose rules requiring safer handling of chemicals at facilities across the United States that put millions of people at risk from chemical disaster.

Did you know that a record breaking 20 million people visited Washington, DC in 2014? Tourists from all over the world come to see and learn about the Capitol, the White House the Smithsonian museums, and other attractions in our nation’s capitol.

In total, tourism industry representatives estimate that visitors to DC spend $6 billion every year.

And yet, for all the money they spend and all the sights they see, there is a side of the city consistently left out for DC tourists. Coming out of the White House, visitors pass by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, but no sign points out that the Chamber of Commerce has spent more than $22 million on lobbying this year. Meanwhile, just down the street, tourists walk by the Koch Industries office, which spent more than $10 million on lobbying initiatives in 2015 alone.

During visitors’ stays in DC, they inevitably passed by at least one of the 20 chemical industry powerhouses within the city’s borders. From lobbying groups to trade associations, most of them are less than ten blocks from each other, located right in front of the White House.

But these buildings aren’t pointed out on tours, and neither are the millions of organizations inside of them that are spending to influence policy. So far in 2016, the chemical industry as a whole has spent close to $4.5 million on congressional campaigns and an additional $16 million on lobbying. One of the country’s largest chemical associations, the American Chemistry Council, has already spent $1.2 million on lobbying this year.

What does the chemical industry gain from this exorbitant spending? Considerably more access and influence in Washington than the people living near or working in its plants.

And when it comes to regulating chemical safety, that poses a problem.

Currently, there are more than 466 chemical facilities that each put 100,000 or more people at risk in the United States. Terrorism, cyber attacks, natural disasters and even human error has the ability to cause a leak or explosion at each of these plants that could result in thousands of fatalities.

Moreover, majority African American, Latino, and low-income communities are significantly more likely to be located close to dangerous chemical plants than white communities or those above the poverty line. This not only makes chemical safety a national security issue, but a critical social and environmental justice issue, as well.

Since 2011, the Coalition to Prevent Chemical Disasters and everyday people like you have been asking the EPA to require chemical facilities to conduct safety assessments and require the use of safer alternatives, which is much more cost effective than responding to a disaster.

Finally, after the April 2013 West, Texas disaster, President Obama issued an executive order was August 1, 2013 directing the EPA to modernize its chemical plant regulations. As a Senator, Obama had led the fight for requirements on high risk chemical plants to use inherently safer technology (IST).

In March of this year, the EPA finally proposed a new rule, but it was extremely limited in scope. For example, a requirement to have chemical facilities evaluate safer processes that can prevent disasters only applied to 12 percent of 12,500 facilities. And they wouldn’t even have to submit their findings to the EPA or make summaries publicly available. In addition, none of the facilities would be required to actually use a safer alternative even if they found it to be feasible.

Both of these provisions are policies the president championed in the Senate.

Fortunately, public opinion polls show that chemical safety is a non-partisan issue, with 79 percent of likely voters supporting strict federal safety standards. Yet by keeping disaster prevention voluntary for more than 20 years, the chemical industry continues to endanger millions of Americans.

The EPA needs to start taking the President’s executive order seriously and stand up to the chemical lobby. As then-Senator Obama said in an address to Congress in 2006, “We cannot allow chemical industry lobbyists to dictate the terms of this debate. We cannot allow our security to be hijacked by corporate interests.”

If you want to help, click here today and tell the president that EPA can no longer allow prevention to be optional.

By Emily Zurawski

Emily Zurawski is a toxics intern at Greenpeace USA.

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