Chemical Plants Fail to Cut Hazards as Concerns of Terrorism Grow

For years, the Blue Plains Wastewater Treatment Plant, just outside of Washington, D.C., stored deadly chlorine gas in 90-ton rail cars. A rupture of just one of these rail cars would have put 1.7 million people at risk, covering the White House, Congress, as well as Bolling Air Force Base. These risks had been known for almost two decades, prompting repeated complaints from the Dept. of Defense and the City of Washington -- which commissioned a study in 1991 that recommended bleach as a safer substitute for the more dangerous chlorine. Yet the Blue Plains facility refused to change, no government action was taken, and the danger persisted. Then came Sept. 11. Suddenly, the threat of a terrorist attack on the plant, setting off a deadly release of chlorine, became very real. Indeed, the Washington Post reported on Dec. 16, 2001, that trade publications from the U.S. chemical industry were found in a hideout of Osama bin Laden. In short order, the Blue Plains facility removed its 90-ton rail cars, and began to use sodium hypochlorite bleach, which does not have the potential to drift off-site, as a substitute for chlorine. This is good news to be sure, but it's frustrating that it took so long, and that action came only after a terrorist attack. The very real possibility of a catastrophic accident should have been frightening enough. On average, there are over 60,000 chemical accidents a year, resulting in more than 250 deaths and thousands of injuries, according to this report by the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board. This past summer, for instance, a 25,000-gallon rail-car holding methyl mercaptan - which can cause paralysis, severe breathing problems, and death - caught fire at Atofina Chemical Plant in Riverside, MI, killing three workers and forcing the evacuation of about 2,000 residents, many of which complained of a burning sensation in their throats, stinging eyes, itchy skin, headaches and nausea. Yet when it comes to chemical facilities, Blue Plains is a shining success story. Chemical facilities have been very slow to shift to safer substitute chemicals, such as bleach, or to store hazardous materials in safer, smaller volumes, and amazingly -- yet perhaps not surprisingly -- the attacks of Sept. 11 have not led to broad efforts to reduce chemical hazards. Instead, chemical manufacturers have focused almost exclusively on site security, which nonetheless remains woefully inadequate. A 1999 report from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry noted that "security at chemical plants ranged from fair to very poor" and that "security around chemical transportation assets ranged from poor to non-existent." Yet it wasn't until Oct. 23 of 2001 that the chemical industry - represented by the American Chemistry Council (formerly the Chemical Manufacturers Association), the Chlorine Institute and the Synthetic Organic Chemical Manufacturers Association - issued voluntary guidelines for greater site security to prevent against terrorist attacks (years after they first raised the possibility of terrorism as a reason to restrict data on chemical hazards). These guidelines virtually ignore the issue of reducing the hazards themselves. Likewise, the federal government has taken no action of any kind to promote reduction of hazards - even on a voluntary basis. Indeed, in a recent meeting with environmental organizations, attended by OMB Watch, EPA representatives clearly indicated that nothing in this area was even being discussed. This passivity is not because EPA denies the risk. In fact, shortly after Sept. 11, EPA removed data from its web site on chemical hazards at facilities around the country, citing concerns that such information could be used by terrorists to zero in on potential targets, as discussed further here. With removal of this information - which can empower the public to demand safer communities - government and industry should carry an extra burden to address the source of the problem - the hazards themselves. To be sure, there is much to be done. Roughly 3,000 U.S. facilities have a "vulnerability zone" that encompasses more than 10,000 people who could be killed or injured in the event of a chemical accident or terrorist attack, as the Working Group on Community Right-to-Know pointed out. About 700 facilities put more than 100,000 people at risk. Yet amazingly, no federal law regulates these vulnerability zones in terms of size, chemical intensity, or population at risk; companies are not even required to assess and consider inherently safer methods of operation. Sen. Jon Corzine (D-NJ) is pushing legislation that would take a first step in this direction. Specifically, Corzine's legislation - the Chemical Plant Security Act (S. 1602) -- calls for the EPA administrator to identify high-risk chemical facilities, and require those facilities to adopt "inherent safety measures" to reduce chemical hazards. This preventive approach is different than current laws governing chemical facilities, which deal with preparing for emergencies, managing risk, and generally responding to accidents after they occur. Not surprisingly, the chemical industry has lobbied aggressively against the Corzine legislation, arguing that voluntary efforts are sufficient. Frequently, industry lobbyists point to the Responsible Care Program, launched by the American Chemistry Council (formerly the Chemical Manufacturers Association) in 1988, which sets goals and priorities for reducing hazards. Yet such voluntary efforts have proven woefully ineffective. For instance, a survey of nearly 200 chemical facilities, conducted by the Working Group on Community Right-to-Know, found that only two had developed measurable goals and timelines to reduce worst-case vulnerability zones. What's needed is concrete government action. New Jersey, Corzine's home state, has been at the forefront in reducing chemical hazards. Companies that handle, use, manufacture, store, or have the capability to generate a certain amount of an extraordinarily hazardous substance, must pay a fee to the state, as required by the New Jersey Toxic Catastrophe Prevention Act (TCPA). (In FY 2001, these fees covered the $1,279,076 annual cost of the program.) This has prompted a number of water treatment plants in New Jersey to switch from using chlorine to using sodium hypochlorite as the primary chemical used to treat water - an inherently safer process. A couple of plants have begun using ultraviolet light treatment, and one has switched to ozone generation. The increased cost of the switch has been mostly offset by the resulting reduction of TCPA dues; and it goes without saying, the public is substantially safer. Unfortunately, New Jersey is the only state with such a program in place. Most other states, like the federal government, have done nothing to address the reduction of chemical hazards. With one in six Americans living in a vulnerable zone, it's about time we did.
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