THE WEAKEST LINK:
Proposed Chemical Safety Bill Considered Essential First Step in Preventing Chemical Disasters
Even President Bush was at risk. On September 11, when Air Force One landed in Louisiana, the President joined more than a million Louisiana residents who live every day in a region that is blanketed by chemical "kill zones." These kill zones surround more than 100 petro-chemical facilities located along the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. A 1999 federal government study of the U.S. chemical industry found security against terrorists to be "fair to poor."
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), more than 120 chemical facilities in the U.S. each threaten a million or more nearby residents. The Surgeon General of the U.S. Army identified chemical plants as second only to bio-terrorism in terrorist threats in the US.
Similarly, a 2002 Brookings Institute report ranked chemical facilities third in the number of fatalities that could occur from a terrorist attack. And the 2001 Argonne National Laboratory study reported, "The failure to identify and evaluate opportunities to reduce the risks from these types of relatively rare accidents could ultimately lead to thousands of fatalities, injuries, and evacuations."
Thankfully, there has never been a terrorist attack on a U.S. chemical facility. But there have been more than 3,000 accidents involving more than 10,000 pounds of hazardous materials since 1987, with smaller incidents occurring daily.
Senator Jon Corzine (D-NJ) has introduced a bill (S. 1602) that not only requires beefed up security by the chemical industry but puts prevention first, to ultimately eliminate or reduce the possibility of a chemical release by encouraging inherently safer technologies. The EPA is also drafting similar legislation and new regulations.
In 2002, the Dutch government announced that they will set aside $395 million to help relocate polluting or dangerous facilities away from cities. The French are considering similar steps.
In the U.S., 15,000 facilities across the U.S. are required to report their worst-case accident scenarios to the EPA. These reports contain estimates on the distance that a super toxic chemical cloud could extend over neighboring populations. Pressure has recently been put on the EPA to deny public access to this basic information.
Denying access to these reports will only accomplish one thing: it will leave the public without vital information needed to protect themselves in the event of an attack or an accident. Hiding basic hazard information from the public undermines the credibility of government and industry and will lead to dedicated terrorists being the only non-governmental people outside industry to have this information.
Virtually all of the EPA data supplied by industry reports is publicly available elsewhere. To produce the posted Greenpeace maps, all that was used from the EPA reports were the names of toxic chemical(s) used or stored at facilities and the distance they estimate a poison gas cloud would travel in an accident. The reports also contain estimates of the number of people living and working in the danger zone, based on U.S. Census data. None of this information would be difficult for determined terrorists to acquire from other publicly available sources such as industry publications, libraries, U.S. Census Bureau and publicly available maps.
Unfortunately, after using terrorism as an argument to hide potential chemical disasters, the U.S. chemical industry has done little to eliminate the threats posed by chemical facilities. In March 2001, Greenpeace exposed a significant example of this failure by publishing photographic evidence from inside a Dow Chemical plant in Plaquemine, Louisiana. The photos show the internal control panels and operating instructions of an unguarded pump house that releases 550 million gallons of wastewater into the Mississippi River every day.
While investigating Dow's Clean Water Act violations, Greenpeace activists entered this facility undetected. There were no guards at the perimeter, no security cameras and no burglar alarms. In fact, the door to the building was unlocked. All of these are rudimentary security measures that the EPA recommended in a February 2000 security alert. The EPA also recommended "design" changes in plants that few facilities have implemented.
Greenpeace recommends a set of short and long-term steps to truly eliminate these unnecessary and preventable disasters. In the short-term these include the immediate: adoption of S. 1602 by Congress, implementation of a program to end the transport of large quantities of poisonous chemicals, reduction in storage of similar substances to quantities that cannot threaten area populations, and decentralized production of these substances to eliminate the need for large container transport and storage.
In Washington D.C., the local sewage treatment plant has already accelerated by one year an end to their use of highly toxic chlorine gas due to its potential use by terrorists. The plant is only four miles from the U.S. Capitol. According to the National Transportation Safety Board and the Coast Guard, a large leak of chlorine gas can travel two miles in only 10 minutes and remain acutely toxic to a distance of about 20 miles.
In the long term, virtually all of the ultra-hazardous chemicals used in the U.S. have safer substitutes and conversion to them should begin today. The U.S. needs many things to function, like the besieged airline industry and the postal system. What it does not need is to continue producing obsolete and ultra-hazardous chemicals that pose enormous risks to the public--with or without the threat of terrorist attack.
More information about the potential dangers of chemical accidents can be found here. Copies of Greenpeace's latest "kill zone map," which were provided to the EPA's office of Homeland Security on April 2, 2002, can be accessed from the website.
See Greenpeace's companion story, What Have We Learned From the Baltimore Train Tunnel Disaster?, also in this issue.
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This story was published on August 7, 2002.