Making Real Change

by Rick Hind

January 5, 2009

As we all know, the theme of President-Elect Barack Obama’s campaign was "change we can
believe in" or sometimes, "change we need."  Since the election some have wondered how much real change Obama will succeed in implementing.

While it’s much too early to answer that question, let’s remember that Obama has also repeatedly reminded us that "change happens because the American people demand it – because they rise up and insist on new ideas…"  In other words, it will happen if we get involved.

Long before 9/11 or even Bhopal, Greenpeace has challenged the notion that U.S. chemical plants have no alternative to the storage or use of large quantities of poison gases like chlorine. In 2006, instead of enacting legislation that would require the use of safer alternatives to eliminate the catastrophic risks these plants pose, Congress enacted a temporary law.  The new law is so bad it actually prohibits the government from requiring safer alternatives to poison gases and exempts thousands of chemical facilities, including all publicly owned water treatment plants.

So where is President Obama on this issue? Fortunately, he’s been a leader on it since he arrived in the U.S. Senate.  He wrote about it in Audacity of Hope and co-authored the strongest legislation in the Senate.

When Obama introduced his bill (S. 2486) on the Senate floor he said, "there are other ways to reduce risk that need to be part of the equation. Specifically, by employing safer technologies, we can reduce the attractiveness of chemical plants as a target…This concept, known as Inherently Safer Technology [IST]…reduces the danger that chemical plants pose to our communities and makes them less appealing targets for terrorists.

"Unfortunately, the chemical industry has been lobbying nonstop on this bill. They do not want IST, they do not want protection of state laws and they do not want strict regulations…This is wrong. We cannot allow chemical industry lobbyists to dictate the terms of this debate. We cannot allow our security to be hijacked by corporate interests."

Obama wasn’t exaggerating. Greenpeace counted 238 registered industry lobbyists who work on chemical security legislation. We estimate they spent approximately $1 million monthly, hijacking strong legislation and regulations.

During the Presidential campaign, Obama gave strong answers to Greenpeace’s questionnaire to Presidential candidates. He also raised the issue in a debate with Senator McCain and again on the Letterman Show.  In October, Obama told MSNBC, "I think that chemical plant security is another where the chemical industry has been resistant to mandates when it comes to hardening their sites. But, you know what? If you’ve got a chemical plant that threatens 100,000, or a million people in New Jersey, we better have some say in terms of how serious they are about guarding that facility."

Since the election, Obama has also listed chemical security on the Transition Team’s web site at: http://change.gov/agenda/homeland_security_agenda, but as we look ahead to the new Congress, we will have less than nine months to enact permanent legislation because the interim law expires on October 4, 2009. Obama’s leadership will be critical in keeping Congress on the right track.  If the new President calls for strong legislation and that is reinforced by the new Secretary of Homeland Security (Janet Napolitano) and the new EPA administrator (Lisa Jackson), the Congress will have an easier time resisting the chemical lobby and paying attention to the people.

While Congress is famous for making compromises, that works better when they’re spending money which is infinitely divisible, than it does on toy safety or protecting communities from another Bhopal disaster. The "change we need" is simply a requirement that high-risk chemical plants that CAN convert to safer technologies do so. The challenge for Congress is to summon the political will to put the risks now borne by more than 100 million Americans ahead of the lobbyists. For the publicly-owned water treatment plants Congress should make available grants, as part of the economic stimulus package, to local water authorities so the cost of their conversion doesn’t compete with other local needs.

And let’s remember that any loopholes that are slipped into the new law will also be visible to al-Qaeda or anyone else who would do us harm.

Alternatively, once a plant converts to safer chemicals or processes, as hundreds have already, they might as well notify terrorists directly because attacking them will no longer achieve the disasters they are aiming for.

The good news is that it will happen if "the American people demand it." But we must "rise up and insist on" it. If we don’t those 238 industry lobbyists and their PR firms and front groups will spend the year running out the clock and then try to pressure Congress to make the temporary law permanent.

Tell Congress to get tough on chemical security.

Rick Hind

By Rick Hind

Rick is the legislative director at Greenpeace USA. Since he joined the organization in 1991, he is a go-to source for journalists covering toxics and chemical security issues. He has been quoted in a wide range of national publications including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, CBS News, NPR, FOX, and many more.

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