Using the Clean Air Act to Protect Americans from Chemical Accidents

In March, a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) advisory panel recommended that the agency use its authority under the Clean Air Act to protect Americans against chemical disasters. Using safer chemicals could reduce or eliminate the threats and dangers that chemical plants pose to millions of people living downwind.

Americans at Risk

More than four hundred chemical plants in the United States pose a significant risk to the communities in which they operate, each one putting at least 100,000 Americans at risk of a chemical disaster. In addition, several thousand plants use, store, and ship poisonous gases, such as chlorine and anhydrous ammonia, creating more risks of accidents and exposure. For instance, in March 2011, two workers were killed, two more injured, and about 130 employees were out of work after a chemical plant exploded in Rubbertown, KY. In January 2005, nine people died and at least 529 were injured when a freight train pulling three tankers full of liquidized chlorine and one tanker of sodium hydroxide crashed into a parked train in Graniteville, SC, releasing 11,500 gallons of chlorine gas.

However, there are many safer alternatives that industry can use to replace these dangerous chemicals and better protect Americans in the process. In fact, some communities no longer face risks of dangerous chemical exposures because the plants have switched to safer chemicals and processes. Ninety days after the Sept. 11th terrorist attacks in 2001, the Blue Plains Wastewater Treatment Facility in Washington, DC, voluntarily switched from using a deadly chlorine gas in the treatment of wastewater to a potentially safer alternative. In 2009, the Clorox Company announced its replacement of bulk quantities of chlorine gas with safer chemicals. Though more than 220 chemical facilities have switched to safer and more secure chemicals and processes since 2001, risky chemical plants have been slow to voluntarily convert to safer alternatives.

In 2006, Congress sought to address chemical plant security with passage of the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards (CFATS), a law that required vulnerability assessments to be submitted to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). However, CFATS specifically prohibited DHS from requiring any specific security measures, including the use of safer chemicals and processes that could eliminate the catastrophic hazards posed by poison gas. Provisions of the law also exempt thousands of chemical facilities, including about 2,400 water treatment facilities and the majority of U.S. petroleum refineries, from oversight and fail to involve employees in the development of a plant’s security plans. CFATS operates under such excessive secrecy that the public is unable to evaluate if the program is working and cannot hold the government or facilities accountable.

On several occasions, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has asked Congress for the authority to require the highest risk plants to switch to safer alternatives. However, Congress has been unwilling to act on these requests. In recent years, legislation has been proposed in the Senate to close these gaps but has been unable to move past committees. Congressional Republicans, with support from the chemical industry, have locked in the security gaps and loopholes in CFATS.

EPA Authority

Despite congressional inaction on the issue, many believe that existing authority at the EPA could be used to require safer chemical plants. In a March 14 letter to the EPA, the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC) formally recommended that the EPA use the "general duty clause" of the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments to prevent chemical disasters. This clause is also known as the "Bhopal amendment," as it refers to the 1984 chemical explosion in Bhopal, India, which killed thousands. The clause, section 112(r) of the Clean Air Act, obligates chemical facilities to prevent catastrophic chemical releases.

Using this authority, the EPA could require plants to use safer chemicals in order to reduce or eliminate the threats that the plants pose to communities. Historically, these communities have included significant low-income, minority, and indigenous populations. For instance, of the people living within one mile of the chemical plant that exploded in Rubbertown, KY, more than 70 percent are people of color, and 22 percent live below the poverty line.

In its March 14 letter, NEJAC stated that the general duty clause has never been fully implemented, despite a 2002 EPA proposal that would have required chemical plants to use safer chemicals and processes. "Unfortunately, the agency’s efforts were scuttled and environmental justice communities, and indeed all communities, remain vulnerable to the dire threat of hazardous chemical releases, explosions, and spills." The letter was generated after the council received testimony from environmental justice leaders during a public comment session in October 2011.

Public Interest Reaction and Campaign

Public interest advocates welcomed the letter and urged the administration to mandate that safer chemicals be required. "[T]hese chemical facilities are a huge threat to disadvantaged communities, and the EPA must do everything it can to protect us from the risk of a poison gas disaster," said Juan Parras of Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (TEJAS). According to Parras, Texas leads the nation with 106 chemical facilities; Houston has 21 facilities that each put one million or more people at risk.

Public interest organizations have long advocated that more needs to be done to protect communities near chemical facilities. In June 2011, a coalition of more than 100 local and national organizations, including OMB Watch, urged President Obama and the EPA to reduce or eliminate chemical risks to Americans by using the Clean Air Act to protect communities against chemical disasters with the safest chemicals available.

In May 2011, public interest organizations submitted a report with extensive recommendations for improving public access and participation on environmental issues, which included the use of safer chemicals. Specifically, the report recommended that the Obama administration require emergency plans in chemical facilities to include an assessment of safer chemical alternatives. In An Agenda to Strengthen Our Right to Know, organizations noted that "by requiring an alternatives assessment during the emergency planning process, the threat to countless communities could be greatly reduced or even eliminated as facilities discover and convert to safer technologies that other facilities are already using."

Take Action

You can take action by urging President Obama to use his authority to protect you, your family, and community from chemical disasters. Call on the president to use the Clean Air Act to require companies to user safer chemicals and processes.

Image in teaser by flickr user christopherbarnette, used under a Creative Commons license.

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