A year ago today, 15 Americans were killed and 200 injured in a fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas that also destroyed surrounding schools, a nursing home, and residential buildings. The disaster raised serious questions about managing the risks that facilities can pose to local communities. A year later, we ask ourselves, are we any safer?
The unfortunate reality is that the West, TX accident is not an isolated occurrence. Explosions and spills involving toxic chemicals have occurred almost regularly, injuring or killing workers and community residents, forcing the evacuation of entire towns, and contaminating drinking water. A short list of notable incidents over the past year makes it clear that such disasters continue to occur around the country.
- May 28, 2013: a tractor trailer crashed into a freight train outside of Baltimore, Maryland. The train, carrying chemicals, set off an explosion that could be heard at least a half-mile away and released a plume of smoke into the air.
- June 16, 2013: an explosion and fire occurred at a petrochemical plant in Geismar, LA (just south of Baton Rouge), killing one person, injuring at least 70, and forcing residents within a two-mile radius of the plant to stay indoors.
- June 17, 2013: a nitrogen plant just 20 miles north of Geismar, in Donaldsonville, LA, suffered an explosion that killed one and injured seven workers.
- Dec. 20, 2013: an explosion at the Axiall plant near Moxxville, LA, sent nearby motorists to the hospital.
- Jan 9, 2014: two toxic chemicals from Freedom Industries spilled into the Elk River in Charleston, WV, contaminating the drinking water of more than 300,000 residents.
- Feb. 20, 2014: a chemical fire at a fertilizer storage facility in Northwood, IA led officials to evacuate the town’s nearly 2,000 residents.
These incidents continue to reveal glaring gaps in the country’s patchwork of oversight laws that govern the use of hazardous chemicals. Public concern about the handling of dangerous chemicals has significantly increased, particularly at facilities close to schools, nursing homes, and residences. In fact, nearly one in ten American schoolchildren study within one mile of a potentially dangerous chemical facility.
In the wake of the West explosion, President Barack Obama signed an executive order establishing an Interagency Working Group to improve chemical facility safety and security. The Center for Effective Government has repeatedly provided input to the Working Group. We have urged agencies to ensure the public has information about the risks that chemical facilities pose to their communities and ready access to emergency information to protect themselves and their families in the event of a disaster. But most importantly, we have recommended that the federal government require facilities to switch to inherently safer chemicals and processes whenever possible to reduce the risk these locations pose to communities.
The Working Group is expected to report its recommendations to the president in May.
You can help. Take action and call on the Obama administration to reduce the risk of future catastrophes by requiring facilities to switch to safer chemicals – before more lives are put at risk. Here are some resources and ways you can help:
Sign a Petition: Tell the EPA to increase standards for chemical safety and mandate that companies replace dangerous chemicals with safer alternatives: http://bit.ly/1jKBaOh.
Send a Tweet to EPA:
- One year later, we still need stronger safeguards to protect us from disasters like #WestTX. Learn more: http://bit.ly/1kujnvG #SaferChemicals
- 1 year later, we still need safeguards and #SaferChemicals to protect us from events like #WestTX. @EPA take action: http://bit.ly/1jKBaOh
- #WestTX was a terrible disaster, but we can prevent future ones. Tell @EPA to take action http://bit.ly/1jKBaOh
- One year after #WestTX, we don’t feel safer. Tell @EPA we want #SaferChemicals http://bit.ly/1jKBaOh
For even more resources, visit the Coalition to Prevent Chemical Disasters website.
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