Will the EPA Force Chemical Plants to Go Safe?
On August 7, the Chevron refinery in Richmond, California, had a serious fire that forces local residents to hide in their homes with the doors and windows sealed, and sent hundreds seeking medical care. If the explosion had ruptured one of the tanks of anhydrous ammonia on site, 160,000 residents living up to five miles from the plant may have found themselves in a blanket of poison gas.
For the average American, it’s tempting to want to dismiss the danger: surely chemical plants are located far away from where you live, right?
Likely, you’re wrong. A shocking number of chemical plants are located in or near the hearts of major US urban areas. In the Greater Los Angeles area, KIK SoCal’s facility puts almost five million people at risk. Nearly 4 million Dallas residents live in the shadow of the Dallas Central Regional Wastewater System. In the Northeast, the Kuehne plant near Manhattan endangers more than 12 million people.
These are only a few examples—nationwide, there are almost 500 chemical facilities that each put more than 100,000 people at risk of death or illness due to chemical exposure. These plants use toxic chemicals like chlorine, phosgene, hydrofluoric acid and other dangerous substances that, when accidents occur, cause catastrophic loss of life.
In fact, one in three people in this country live in the danger zones around the highest risk plants. Even people who don’t live next door to a chemical facility are still in harm’s way: chemicals are shipped around the country by truck and train, meaning that it’s likely that the vast majority of us encounter this threat at some time or another. A horrifying example is the train derailment in Graniteville, South Carolina, on January 9, 2005 that killed nine people and exposed at least 250 to chlorine gas, costing tens of millions of dollars. It’s time we stop chemical companies from shipping and stockpiling deadly toxins.
Congress may be nearly incapable of accomplishing anything, but fortunately for us, the Environmental Protection Agency has the authority to use the Clean Air Act to require safeguards at our nation’s chemical plants. The EPA never fully implemented the “Bhopal Amendment” of 1990, which requires chemical facilities to prevent a release of ultra hazardous substances. President Obama has consistently called for legislation that would prioritize the use of safer chemical processes to prevent disasters at the most dangerous chemical facilities.
The President has nearly the entire nation behind him on this. When polled, over 70 percent of the population thinks we need better regulation of toxic chemicals. National security experts have said for at least a decade that these “pre-positioned weapons of mass destruction” are a weak link in our critical infrastructure. Workers in dangerous facilities want a safer place to work. Communities on train and truck routes to and from these facilities want to be safe, as do communities near the plants themselves. Health experts and first responders know they couldn’t handle the massive casualties caused by a disaster. Railroad companies have said they no longer want to ship these poison gases.
In fact, the only entities standing in the way are the chemical companies, their armies of lobbyists and the politicians they’ve bought off. But even in the industry, some companies like Clorox are doing the right thing, eliminating the disaster risk from their facilities by converting to safer—affordable—chemical processes that eliminate the need to store large amounts of poison gases. For example, instead of using the chemical weapon, chlorine gas, to make bleach, some makers have switched to using electrolysis to turn salt into the chlorine as needed. Still, the chemical industry is fighting to preserve the status quo.
That’s why a coalition of over 100 organizations representing workers, environmental justice leaders and health professionals sent the President a letter over a year ago asking him to take action. More recently, over 60,000 people signed a petition calling for safer chemical plants and fifty-nine organizations filed an official petition with the EPA. Under the 1990 “Bhopal Amendment” to the Clean Air Act, facilities that store and use highly toxic substances are required to prevent releases of those chemicals through safe operation. The EPA has authority to both provide new guidance and create new regulations, but the policy has never been fully implemented. Preventing disasters by using safer chemical processes should be the corner stone of this program. Governor Christine Todd Whitman was head of the EPA in 2002 when they tried to implement such a program and she has recently recommended this action to current Administrator Lisa Jackson.
Every day that goes by is one too many for the people living this dangerous game of disaster roulette. Politicians have delayed a decision on chemical security for a decade. It is time for President Obama to authorize the EPA to fully implement chemical disaster prevention under the Clean Air Act.