Americans Want Safer Chemical Facilities, but the Shutdown Stalled Reform Efforts

A new poll released Oct. 11 found that a majority of Americans want the federal government to require facilities to use safer chemicals and processes to prevent chemical disasters like the explosion in West, TX in April. However, an effort to better coordinate the work of three federal agencies was stalled thanks to the government shutdown. Now that the agencies are all functioning again, we hope they will meet their target deadlines for recommending new policies to improve the safety of facilities handling or storing large quantities of hazardous chemicals.

A Majority of Americans Support Federal Requirements to Use Safer Chemicals

Fifty-five percent of likely voters believe that "the federal government should require chemical facilities to use safer chemicals and processes," according to a new survey released by a coalition of more than 100 labor, community, environmental, and public interest organizations. Only seven percent of likely voters opposed the idea.

The survey of a set of nationally representative voters found support for federal safety requirements increases with more information. When respondents were told that over 100 million Americans live near high-risk chemical plants and that hundreds of plants have already switched to safer alternatives, support for new federal requirements increased to almost two-thirds across all groups, including a majority of Republicans. Support stayed strong even when the language was posed against industry messaging arguing that new requirements could cost jobs or increase prices of consumer products. Almost 60 percent of likely voters agreed that more needed to be done to protect the public by switching to safer process when available and reasonable; only 22 percent supported the idea that requiring such changes is unnecessary government bureaucracy and too expensive.

"We need to have some action on a federal level," said former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator and former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman in a press call organized by the Coalition to Prevent Chemical Disasters. Chemical safety has been an "obvious issue" since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, she said. Ten years ago, Whitman, who served as President Bush's EPA administrator, proposed new rules under Clean Air Act authority to require safer processes wherever feasible. But the Bush White House stopped Whitman's plan under lobbying pressure from the chemical industry. "It's time to take action," Whitman said.

In fact, since that time, over 600 facilities have shifted to safer alternatives. In 2009, the Clorox Company announced its replacement of bulk quantities of chlorine gas with safer chemicals. The Dow Chemical Company and K2 Pure Solutions also opened bleach manufacturing plants that don't use chlorine gas. In addition, over 550 water and wastewater treatment facilities have switched to safer and more secure chemicals and processes since 2001.

"Over 10 years ago, we treated the wastewater at our plant [the Bergen County Utilities Authority] with chlorine gas, and we kept between 30-40 tons of it onsite," said John Birkner, President of the Utility Workers Union of America (UWUA) Local 534 and the mayor of Westwood, NJ during the press call. "Chlorine gas is deadly if it escapes, and in the one of the most densely populated areas of the most densely populated state in the country, that means tens of thousands of people's lives were at risk if a chemical leak or explosion occurred. The move to an inherently safer substance was essential."

"Speaking as a mayor, obviously what we spend taxpayer dollars on as a public entity, anything that goes to provide a safer environment for our constituents is money well-spent," Birkner said.

But the facilities that have made such changes still represent a miniscule number of the plants that report high volumes of risky chemicals on site.

Federal Initiative Delayed

In the wake of the West, TX explosion, President Obama issued an executive order on Aug. 1, entitled Improving Chemical Facility Safety and Security. The order originally gave the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Labor, and the Department of Homeland Security until Nov. 1 to identify policy changes that will significantly enhance the safety and security of chemical facilities; they have until May 1, 2014 to report their recommendations to the president.

As part of this process, the agencies are to host listening sessions with the public and key stakeholders, including chemical facility workers, first responders, environmental justice and surrounding communities, and local officials. The first stakeholder meetings were scheduled for Oct. 1 in Washington, DC, but were cancelled because of the federal government shutdown, as was a regional meeting on a related pilot project for the New Jersey/New York region. At least three additional meetings have been scheduled, but no details are currently available because of the shutdown.

Though the working group has not issued any statements on its activities since the government reopened, it is unlikely that it will be able to meet the Nov. 1 deadline. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) predicted the deadlines will "definitely be delayed."

Environmental activists believe the working group could establish new policies to require safer alternatives as part of its charge to improve chemical safety and security. The National Environmental Justice Advisory Council argues that EPA has untapped authority under Section 112(r) of the Clean Air Act (General Duty Clause) to require plants to shift to less toxic chemical alternatives.

During his first presidential campaign, President Barack Obama promised to "secure our chemical plants by setting a clear set of federal regulations that all plants must follow, including improving barriers, containment, mitigation and safety training, and where possible, using safer technology, such as less toxic chemicals." The working group provides the administration a great opportunity to keep this commitment. Let's hope they take it.

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