Hazard Reduction at Chemical Plants Equals Safer Hometowns

The Safe Hometowns Initiative, a coalition of citizen groups, held press briefings and events in more than 20 states across the country on March 7 to warn that six months after the Sept. 11 attacks, millions of Americans remain at risk from possible terrorist attacks on chemical storage facilities. This warning was recently reinforced by a study from the Army surgeon general, uncovered by the Washington Post, which concludes that as many as 2.4 million people are at risk of being killed or injured in a terrorist attack against a U.S. toxic chemical plant in a densely populated area. This shocking number is twice as high as previous government estimates of possible casualties of a worst-case scenario involving terrorist attacks on chemical plants. To prevent against such a scenario, the Safe Hometowns coalition is calling for community efforts and federal policy changes to reduce chemical hazards by requiring companies to consider “inherently safer” technologies and materials, which could reduce -- and in many cases eliminate -- the possibility of a significant chemical release. This vision is detailed by the coalition in a new groundbreaking report, the Safe Hometowns Guide, a citizen’s guide to reducing chemical hazards in communities. The U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG), in working on the initiative, also crafted a complementary policy report, Protecting Our Hometowns. The Safe Hometowns Guide explains how citizens can make their communities less vulnerable to a chemical attack and safer in the event of a chemical release. Among other examples, the guide cites changes in hundreds of New Jersey drinking water and wastewater treatment facilities and a Washington, D.C., wastewater treatment plant that all switched from toxic chlorine gas to a less hazardous alternative. The Washington plant made the move within weeks of Sept. 11, eliminating the possibility of a toxic chlorine cloud spreading across the nation's capital, which is discussed in detail in this previous article from OMB Watch’s Executive Report. “More guards and higher fences alone cannot protect our communities,” said Sanford Lewis, consultant and author of the Safe Hometowns Guide. “These may be useless against terrorists known to use passenger planes and truck bombs. The good news is that we can reduce the chemicals at these sites and make it harder for terrorists to hurt people.” Public health and safety experts helped develop the Guide to provide concerned citizens and organizations with tools they need to reduce the vulnerability of their hometowns. The guide has a step-by-step checklist, to help communities to organize a Chemicals Reassessment Group, which would then identify vulnerable facilities, organize assessments of hazardous materials used at facilities and make recommendations on safer material and process alternatives. While chemical plants have posed significant risks to communities from “routine” accidents, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 have prompted a reassessment of these threats and greater sense of urgency in addressing these risks. The guide establishes a hierarchy of solutions, beginning with inherent safety and cleaner production methods such as substituting safer materials, lowering volumes of dangerous chemicals stored onsite. Lower on the hierarchy are actions such as increasing site security measures, add-on technologies for capturing releases, increasing the buffer zone between the facility and residences and schools, and finally emergency response planning. While the latter measures are recommended, and traditionally more focused upon, it is the earlier responses that will provide the greatest benefit by significantly reducing the risk communities face even if the security measures fail. While the Safe Hometowns Guide addresses how citizens can reduce the risk from chemical plants, Sen. Jon S. Corzine (D-NJ) is attempting to use federal policy to achieve similar risk reduction. Corzine has introduced the Chemical Security Act (S.1602), which directs the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Department of Justice (DOJ) to work with state and local agencies to inventory hazardous chemical sources and determine which are a high-priority risk. EPA and DOJ would then work to reduce those risks by requiring the companies that manufacture, use, or store hazardous chemicals to make processes inherently safer by reducing chemical quantities, switching to safer chemicals, or storing chemicals under safer conditions, starting with the facilities that pose the greatest risk. “There is widespread agreement that chemical plants are potentially attractive to terrorists. So we need to take steps to reduce hazards and improve security at plants. There is a lack of federal standards in this regard, and that's why I introduced the Chemical Security Act,” Corzine said. The Safe Hometowns Initiative has called for passage of Corzine’s bill, which is currently awaiting mark-up. Sens. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and James Jeffords (I-VT) are cosponsoring the bill. Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) has indicated that he will introduce a bill similar to the Chemical Security Act in the House in the upcoming weeks when Corzine's bill is ready for markup. “We know that hazards can be reduced through the use of inherently safer materials and processes,” said Rep. Pallone. “Thousands of people have been protected from chemical explosions or leaks when facilities have eliminated or reduced the use of hazardous materials. With a combination of community involvement and federal policy changes, we can protect people.” U.S. PIRG’s report, Protecting Our Hometowns, gives a number of specific policy suggestions that would make the nation’s 15,000 high-risk facilities safer, highlighting the dangers we currently face. Specifically, PIRG cites EPA documents showing that a chemical release at any one of 125 facilities nationwide could put at least one million people at risk; some 3,000 facilities each put 10,000 people’s safety at risk. PIRG gives particular attention to widespread hazardous substances such as ammonia and chlorine, used by a range of industries, including chemical manufacturers, water treatment facilities, and refineries. According to industry estimates, if the chlorine from even one tank car were released or blown up, the toxic gas could travel two miles in ten minutes and remain lethal as far away as 20 miles. According to PIRG’s report every state except Vermont has facilities with over 100,000 lbs. of hazardous materials that could affect residential areas. Given this level of danger, it’s time we act.
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