Action needed to prevent chemical plant disasters

By Jose T. Bravo & David Campbell via: UT-Sand Diego

The chemical disaster that rocked the small town of West, Texas earlier this year killed 15 people and injured hundreds more, giving us a terrible reminder of the catastrophic dangers posed by facilities that store or produce dangerous substances, especially when those facilities are sited in populated areas.

The same chemical that exploded in West — ammonium nitrate — was used by Timothy McVeigh to destroy the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on almost the exact day 18 years earlier. Right now, hundreds of other similar chemical facilities across the country put tens of millions of Americans in similar danger.

With 58 such facilities, California is second only to Texas in the number of high-risk chemical plants that each endanger 100,000 or more people. In the San Diego area, the Alvarado water treatment plant in La Mesa is one of these; it places 109,310 people in danger. This situation is repeated with alarming frequency in most major U.S. cities: dangerous chemical facilities, oil refineries and water treatment plants could injure and kill thousands if an accident or deliberate attack led to the release of poison gases like chlorine or hydrofluoric acid. President Obama called these facilities “stationary weapons of mass destruction spread all across the country” and championed new requirements to use safer chemicals as a senator and candidate for president.

But there is one major American city that’s no longer put at risk by these facilities.

Just weeks after the 9/11 attacks, officials moved swiftly to address a major security threat — Washington D.C.’s wastewater treatment plant. An attack there or accidental release of the chlorine gas could have threatened the Capitol, White House and more than 1 million nearby residents and workers. So in 90 days, the plant converted to use harmless liquid bleach, removing this threat to our nation’s capital. Some facilities in California, such as Bakersfield’s drinking water plant, also have switched to safer alternatives — but this common-sense solution has yet to become the norm.

In the 12 years since 9/11, lawmakers have failed to provide the same protections to their constituents. Today, more than 100 million Americans remain at risk of a chemical disaster. Throughout the country, nearly 500 facilities each put 100,000 or more people in danger.

All too often the people living closest to these facilities are people of color and with low income. This means the first to die in the event of an accident or terrorist attack would be plant workers, followed by those living near the fence-line — and that does not even begin to consider the long-term effects to everyone in surrounding communities, where access to health care is often lacking.

A new national poll found that 59 percent of the public, including Democrats and Republicans, support new federal requirements to use safer chemicals or processes at our nation’s chemical facilities. Leaders in California such as Sen. Barbara Boxer and Rep. Henry Waxman have tried to pass legislation that would require chemical facilities like these to use safer alternatives, but their efforts have been blocked by a gridlocked Congress. The chemical and oil industries lobbied aggressively against reform, and too many in Congress have allied themselves with these interests, regardless of the potential consequences to constituents.

Fortunately, we can protect our communities without relying on a dysfunctional Congress. In response to the disaster in West, Texas, President Obama issued an executive order on Aug. 1 that directs federal agencies to develop plans by Nov. 1 to ensure chemical plants are as safe as possible.

However, because of the government shutdown, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is delaying these plans until early December, with public hearings in Southern California scheduled for Janu. 7. With two accidents last week alone, every day means another West, Texas is possible. This delay comes despite the EPA’s existing 2002 plan to use the Clean Air Act to require chemical facilities to convert to safer alternatives, such as less-toxic chemicals or safer processes that have been shown to eliminate these catastrophic hazards — a plan that already has worked in our nation’s capital.

If it was good enough to protect officials in Washington, D.C., then it should be the standard for the nation.

Bravo is executive director of Just Transition Alliance in San Diego.; Campbell is secretary-treasurer of United Steelworkers Local 675 in Carson. Both are members of the Coalition to Prevent Chemical Disasters.

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