Safer processes are the only foolproof way

by Rick Hind

April 23, 2010

Today there are still 300 chemical plants that together put 110 million Americans at risk of a disaster worse than Bhopal or 9/11 because each of these plants has enough poison gas on site to kill or injure potentially millions of people living down wind. In June of 2002, the Bush EPA drafted rules for chemical plants as part of a proposed chemical security program to encourage the use of safer chemical processes to eliminate catastrophic hazards. It was so encouraging that the Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee voted unanimously for a bill that would have required high risk chemical facilities to use safer chemical processes. Had either the EPA or the Senate bill been adopted they would have been fully implemented by 2004. Unfortunately the Bush White House scuttle the EPA proposal and the Congress let the EPW bill die.

Today we might be evaluating the success or failure of that program. Instead we are relying on a 740 word temporary law passed in 2006 that gave Congress three years to enact a comprehensive law. At a March 3rd Senate hearing the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) admitted that they will not complete inspections of the 229 highest risk plants until the end of 2010. Yet Republican leaders, backed by the chemical lobby, want to extend this temporary law for five years!

Let’s review the temporary law that chemical makers like so much. It exempts 2,400 water treatment plants and 500 port facilities. It bars the DHS from requiring the use of "any particular security measure." That’s like prohibiting fire proofing and prevention systems that are required in public buildings. In this case it would mean requiring the use a safer chemical processes.

The chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security, Senator Joe Lieberman (I-CT) calls these safer chemical processes "the only foolproof way to defeat a terrorist determined to strike a chemical facility." Instead the current law is based on voluntary industry programs and it doesn’t even provide one dollar to assist facilities with conversion costs.

Meanwhile the DHS is spending time and money on "smell phones" to detect poison gas releases and report them via text messages. They might as well buy 100,000 body bags.

The good news is that in November the House of Representatives passed a bill (H.R. 2868) that for the first time would require the use of "foolproof" processes to eliminate these unbelievable risks. Days before the vote, Clorox announced that they were converting all of their U.S. plants to safer processes just as hundreds of other plants have done over the last decade. Those conversions have eliminated chemical disaster risks for 40 million Americans but not at the 300 plants that put 110 million of us in jeopardy.

Senator Lautenberg (D-NJ) is expected to introduce a bill like the House passed bill very soon. Recently, there was a story in Politico that unearthed this sad history and the status of legislation in the Senate.

Please tell your Senator to take action today!

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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