Recent Industrial Accidents in China and United States Underscore the Need for Urgent Action on Chemical Facility Safety

On Aug. 12, an industrial accident in Tianjin, China killed at least 114 people – including 21 firefighters – and injured roughly 700 more residents. Another 70 people, including 64 firefighters and six policemen, are still listed as “missing.” It is just the most recent example of the catastrophes that can occur when countries don't have adequate safety requirements for industrial facilities.

Some may think massive disasters like this can’t occur here in the United States. They should remember West, Texas.

Shortly before 8 p.m. on April 17, 2013, a fertilizer storage and distribution facility in West, Texas exploded, killing 15 people, injuring more than 200, and destroying over 150 buildings, including three schools. Had the explosion occurred during the day, scores of children could have died.

Serious accidents occur at U.S. chemical facilities almost on a daily basis.

Over 400 chemical facility accidents have occurred just in the two years since President Obama issued his August 2013 executive order on improving federal chemical facility safety policies.

The leak of over 326,000 pounds of the toxic chemical butadiene from a Shell Oil facility in Deer Park, Texas on Aug. 9 is one recent example of this danger. Fortunately, no workers were injured and no health problems have been reported in the surrounding community so far. But, the Shell facility is one of dozens of industrial plants that put almost 2,300 kids attending several schools in Deer Park at risk from a major chemical disaster. Approximately 10,000 people live within the two-mile area around the Shell facility that the company reports would be directly affected by a “worst-case” accident.

The Shell Oil facility incident is only one of several chemical facility accidents in just the past week. On Aug. 14, a series of explosions and a massive fire rocked the DrillChem chemical plant in Conroe, Texas, which manufactures oil industry-related chemicals. The next day, an accidental release of sulfur dioxide from the Hydrite Chemical Co. facility in Terre Haute, Indiana reportedly sent at least 20 people to local hospitals. This accident could have been much worse. The company reports that a worst-case accident involving a release of sulfur dioxide could impact up to 110,000 people living within 13 miles of the facility.

We don't have to live with the threat of chemical disasters in our backyards.

One in every three schoolchildren in America today attends a school within the self-reported vulnerability zones of 3,400 of our most hazardous chemical facilities. We’ve passed a number of important laws to protect the health and safety of our families and children over the years – the Pure Food and Drug Act, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, and the Food Safety Modernization Act. But one area that has proved surprisingly resistant to effective oversight is toxic chemicals.

However, we don’t have to resign ourselves to living under the constant threat of disastrous chemical accidents. Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was poised to require chemical facilities to use inherently safer processes and technologies to reduce the risks of a chemical release to communities. Unfortunately, in 2002, the Bush administration scuttled those requirements.

The EPA has indicated it will again consider requiring facilities to use safer chemicals and processes where available and feasible in a forthcoming proposal to revise its chemical facility safety program. Such a requirement has been a key recommendation of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, the nation’s independent government agency that investigates chemical facility accidents, for improving our nation’s effort to prevent chemical facility accidents.

Once EPA issues its chemical facility safety proposal, expected in September, the public will have a chance to weigh in and demand that the program require that these dangerous facilities use the safest chemicals and technologies available. Anything less will continue to leave our communities at risk for a chemical disaster.

Photo credit: KHOU 11 News

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