Communities Deserve a Say in Chemical Security

by Taylor Smith-Hams

June 3, 2015

Any day now, the EPA is expected to release an “alert” to the chemical industry about safer alternatives that facilities can adopt to prevent disasters.

Greenpeace activists Hope Kaye, left, Jennifer Thomas, center, and John Shumaker hold an Americans at Risk banner near Dow's Texas Operations Plant A facility in Freeport, Greenpeace issued a "failed inspection" report to Dow Chemical Company for failing to fully secure the plant and its toxic chemicals against terrorists or catastrophic accidents.

© Bob Pearson / Greenpeace

Today, startlingly few of the 110 million Americans who live, work and go to school in chemical danger zones are aware of the threat that a poison gas release or explosion poses to their community. Parents, teachers, neighborhood groups, unions and first responders should all have easy access to information about local chemical facilities and a say in eliminating catastrophic hazards in their communities.

Employees at chemical facilities should be able to participate in the selection of the safest available processes and technologies where they work. Our first responders should not have to risk their lives responding to preventable disasters and should have the resources necessary to respond to those that cannot be prevented. We should all be able to rest easy knowing that the worst-case scenario disasters can no longer happen.

As it turns out, this world is within reach.

Clorox Proves It’s Possible

The Clorox Company transitioned from chlorine gas—a substance so toxic it has been used as a chemical weapon—to high-strength bleach at its US plants. Clorox’s bleach plants are a welcome addition to the more than 550 facilities that have transitioned to safer processes and removed the threat of a chemical disaster for more than 40 million Americans.

And it’s not just businesses. The Washington, DC wastewater treatment plant removed 900 tons of liquid chlorine and sulfur dioxide in the eight weeks following 9/11. The facility housed ten rail cars full of dangerous chemicals at the time. If just one of those tanker cars ruptured, a lethal cloud of gas could travel ten miles downwind and kill thousands of people. Jerry N. Johnson, then the general manager of the DC Water and Sewer Authority, said of the quick response, “We decided it was unacceptable to keep this material here any longer.”

The DC plant conversion cost 25 cents per water user.

These conversions to safer processes not only make facilities and communities safer, but ultimately save money by reducing the costs of physical site security, regulatory reporting, and insurance liability while increasing efficiency, production, and product quality. Conversion to safer processes also creates jobs and stimulates innovation in green chemistry.

Tell the EPA: Protect Our Communities

Isn’t it our government’s sworn duty to protect us? Shouldn’t communities have a say in whether catastrophic hazards are allowed to persist? We need new rules that prevent disasters and empower communities to hold chemical plants accountable for the continuation of unsafe practices.

The Clean Air Act gives the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the authority to issue them.

Transparency will be critical for any new rules to be effective. When initially designed in 1999, the EPA’s Risk Management Program (RMP) created a searchable online database called RMP*Info to increase access to facilities’ reported risks and safety plans. Using publicly available information provided by such programs, communities can hold local facilities accountable by raising awareness of hazards and forming community groups to influence policy and facility conduct.

Unfortunately, RMP*Info was restricted in 1999 after the chemical industry and security agencies determined public access to RMP information a security risk. New rules should increase public access to information about the risks facilities pose and the availability of safer processes. Under current rules, companies are required to update their RMPs every five years, but they are not required to reduce catastrophic hazards. With additional transparency, local officials, community groups and employees will help bring about more conversions to safer processes.

Any day now, the EPA is expected to release an “alert” to the chemical industry about safer alternatives that facilities can adopt. EPA alerts like this have minimal regulatory authority and are used to draw attention to issues with the hope of leading to voluntary actions by industry.

In February 2000, a similar alert merely reminded companies of their legal obligation to design and operate their plants in a manner that prevents accidents. To avoid another alert from falling on deaf ears, over 150 organizations urged the EPA last October and the President in March to back it up with enforceable rules to prevent disasters by using safer alternatives as soon as possible.

The upcoming EPA alert should come hand-in-hand with new rules that make these types of safety conversions a requirement. A national poll showed that a majority of likely voters support such a regulation. Current practices at chemical facilities throughout the country needlessly endanger over 110 million Americans.

Take action today to tell President Obama to use his authority to make sure the EPA issues meaningful, enforceable regulations.

Taylor Smith-Hams

By Taylor Smith-Hams

Taylor Smith-Hams is the toxics intern at Greenpeace USA.

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