Still Time for Congress to Prevent Chemical Disasters

by Rick Hind

November 5, 2010

On October 13th the Department of Homeland Security’s staff that oversees chemical plant security warned that, “the U.S. intelligence community has changed its estimate of that threat…We are in a new threat environment domestically…”  Meanwhile all 2,400 publicly owned water treatment plants in the U.S., many of which still use tons of poison gases such as chlorine, are exempt from Homeland Security’s rules.  Because of their reliance on poison gas, approximately 70 drinking water and sewage treatment plants each put at least 100,000 people at risk of a disaster.  Such a disaster would unleash enough poison gas to kill or injure thousands of employees and nearby residents. The U.S. Naval Research Laboratory estimates that people could die at the rate of 100 per second.

Given the latest warnings and the magnitude of the risks you would think Senators in both parties would jump at the chance to enact disaster prevention legislation just as the House did last November.  But according to the pundits, “there’s no time to pass anything” in the lame duck session of Congress.  The truth is there is time.  All that’s needed is the political will to act.  Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) is prepared to take the first step.  His bill (S. 3598) would go along way toward preventing disasters at high risk water treatment plants. 

Both the Department of Homeland Security and the EPA have asked Congress for the authority to use proven disaster prevention methods to eliminate these risks.  Over 500 water treatment plants have voluntarily switched to safer, cost-effective alternatives over the last decade which eliminated these risks to millions of workers and residents. But there is no logical prioritization of these conversions. Some were very high risk but others were not.

As a result, the very highest risk water plants have no obligation to eliminate these risks…ever.  Fifteen of these plants each continue to put more than one million people at risk.  S. 3598 would prioritize the highest risk plants first and provide grants to assist water utilities in eliminating these risks, which will also create jobs and stimulate the local economy. It’s not the comprehensive bill the House passed last year but it would close the security gap at water facilities.

But to make anything happen this year, every Senator needs to hear from you TODAY

— Rick

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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