Time For President Obama to Walk the Walk on Chemical Plant Safety
by Taylor Smith-Hams
July 28, 2015
As we approach the second anniversary of President Obama’s Executive Order on chemical plant safety, we can envision a future with strong regulations that eliminate inherent hazards from our communities.
© The White House
I recently learned that my house is located eight miles from a chemical facility, putting me well within the plant’s 25-mile vulnerability zone if a catastrophic incident were to occur. The danger this facility poses to my neighbors and me is needless.
As we approach the second anniversary of President Obama’s Executive Order on chemical plant safety on August 1 and the September deadline for the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) proposed rulemaking, we can envision a future with strong regulations that eliminate these inherent hazards from our communities.
Safety Standards Almost Approved in 2009
In 2009, the House passed a bill that would have closed many of the loopholes in existing chemical plant legislation discussed in Part 1 of this series. If it had passed the Senate, the bill would have required the facilities exempt from current legislation to conduct site security assessments, consider inherently safer technology (IST), and disclose their findings. High-risk facilities would then be required to provide an IST conversion timeline or a legitimate explanation to the public as to why converting to safer processes was not feasible.
The bill also would have provided grants to facilities to offset conversion processes. Though converting to safer processes can cost less than $100,000, this fund would have significantly weakened complaints about any potential costs of converting.
The bill also would have created jobs and revenue. A study conducted by Management Information Services, Inc. (MISI) found that the bill would have created 8,000 jobs and generated $2 billion in economic stimulus. Chemical facilities would have benefited greatly from reduced spending on physical site security, regulatory reporting, liability, and insurance.
Despite its clear benefits to workers, communities, and facilities, the 2009 bill was not even voted on in the Senate. But strong regulations can still be implemented today by the EPA.
If backed by enforceable regulations and armed with publicly available and easily accessible information about catastrophic hazards at local facilities (currently out of reach as discussed in Part 3 of this series), community groups would have greater leverage in demanding changes directly from the facilities that endanger them.
Parents, teachers, first responders, and local officials would be empowered to have meaningful dialogue with local facilities during which they could point to examples of facilities that use technologies and processes that eliminate catastrophic hazards.
Local labor and environmental justice groups could build on the work of organizations such as the Just Transition Alliance and partner with chemical facility workers to advocate for safer processes.
Most importantly, more workers, first responders, and fenceline communities could rest easier knowing that they were no longer endangered by worst-case scenario chemical disasters.
Time for Action
President Obama has long called for increased chemical plant safety. As a Senator in 2006 he described inherently safer technology (IST) as “an integral part of chemical plant safety” and declared, “we cannot allow chemical industry lobbyists to dictate the terms of the debate. We cannot allow our security to be hijacked by corporate interests.” He also included chemical plant security as a part of his campaign platform in 2008.
The President has talked the talk, now he needs to walk the walk.