30 years after Bhopal, Long Past Time To Make Chemical Plants Safer
Thirty years ago this month, a gas leak at a Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, created a toxic cloud that eventually killed perhaps 20,000 people and injured 500,000 more. No chemical accident since then has approached the scale of the Bhopal disaster, but chemical plant tragedies continue every year, including in the United States — most recently a poison gas leak that killed four workers last month at a La Porte, Texas, plant owned by DuPont.
An explosion last year at a West, Texas, fertilizer plant, which killed 15 people and injured 160 more, prompted the Obama Administration to undertake a multi-agency review of chemical plant safety.
As a Senator, President Obama took a strong stand in favor of requiring chemical plants to move to less dangerous materials and processes where feasible; he cited the dangers of both accident and terrorist attack. Especially at risk are low-income communities located near many U.S. plants.
Unfortunately, decades of lobbying by the Koch brothers and others in the chemical industry has prevented strong action to protect the public against plant disasters, and it is possible that such lobbying today will pressure the Administration to issue rules that are too weak to adequately protect the public. The Administration has moved slowly on the process, and there also appears to be a risk that the Administration will not, as our coalition of community and environmental organizations has strongly urged, issue the rule so that it takes effect before President Obama leaves office.
I want to share a comment addressing these issues that was submitted to the EPA a few weeks ago by me and three other former government officials — Major General Randy Manner, the former acting director and deputy director of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency; Lieutenant General Russel L Honoré, who was commander of Joint Task Force Katrina; and Bob Bostock, who served as assistant for homeland security to EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman in the George W. Bush administration.
October 29, 2014
Honorable Gina McCarthy, Administrator
Docket # EPA-HQ-OEM-2014-0328
Dear Administrator McCarthy:
As former U.S. government officials who held positions in national security and / or environmental protection, we urge the Administration to issue a strong regulation to protect Americans against chemical plant disasters.
For decades, our country has failed to squarely address the security problem that unsecured chemical facilities present. It is a glaring danger that puts millions of our citizens at risk.
In August 2013, President Obama took an important first step with his Executive Order requiring a government review of safety and security procedures at chemical plants.
The President initiated this process, in part, because of the April 2013 ammonium nitrate explosion in West, Texas, which killed 15 people and injured 160 more. This tragedy highlighted much of the chemical industry’s repeated failure to minimize and safely store toxic materials, and our government’s failure to create comprehensive but fair rules to protect against such incidents.
There have been more tragic chemical accidents since West, Texas. None of us should ignore the possibility of more accidents, or chemical incidents resulting from natural disasters, with even more violent consequences.
Many of us recall the 1984 pesticide plant disaster at Bhopal, India, which caused 20,000 deaths. None of us should ignore the possibility that terrorists could trigger a chemical plant attack in our country, with consequences like Bhopal, 9-11, or even worse.
In 2003, the government’s National Infrastructure Protection Center warned that chemical plants in the United States could be al Qaeda targets. Security experts have warned of the relative ease with which a determined team of attackers could thwart conventional plant security.
The EPA has identified about 473 chemical facilities in the U.S. that each put 100,000 or more people at risk of a poison gas disaster. In 2005, the Homeland Security Council projected that a major attack would set off a deadly gas cloud that would kill some 17,500 people and injure tens of thousands more.
The clearest statement of the threat was made by President Obama, when he served in the U.S. Senate. He referred to chemical plants as “stationary weapons of mass destruction spread all across the country.”
This is a national security issue, and the Administration must treat it like one, with the kind of urgency we give to weapons of mass destruction overseas.
If our citizens are to be protected, the new rule must mandate the use of safer chemicals, substances, and processes. The EPA has the authority to issue rules to require chemical plants to move to inherently safer technologies (IST) — which would make them less attractive to terrorists while protecting workers and families living near these facilities. Former EPA administrators Christine Todd Whitman and Lisa Jackson have each called for the EPA to move ahead with such an approach.
This approach is also consistent with the principles the Obama Administration developed for chemical security legislation (CFATS) in 2009 and which were contained in a November 2009 House-passed bill (H.R. 2868). They also were reiterated in 2011 congressional testimony by Rand Beers, then the Under Secretary, National Protection and Programs Directorate, Department of Homeland Security.
Safer cost-effective chemical processes are widely available. Since 2001, hundreds of chemical facilities have switched to safer processes. Clorox Company, for example, has converted all of its U.S. facilities. Based on the many facilities that have converted, the result is reliable protection for employees and communities against catastrophic disasters at minimal cost. Wherever this can be done it should be a requirement.
A rule that adequately protects our people must, at a minimum:
- Require all RMP facilities (those that use extremely hazardous substances and thus are required to develop a Risk Management Plan) to assess safer alternatives to existing chemical processes — alternatives that will eliminate or dramatically reduce the consequences of a catastrophic release of an acutely toxic substance, such as chlorine gas.
- Then, starting with the highest risk facilities, require chemical facilities to substitute safer alternatives to their processes, wherever feasible, that will eliminate or dramatically reduce the consequences of a catastrophic release.
- Issue a final rule that includes the policies outlined above by January 2016.
We understand that the technical and organizational challenges of requiring companies to move to safer technologies are complex. But it can, and must, be done. Given the magnitude of chemical facility hazards posed by potential accidents, natural disasters, and terrorist attacks, we cannot wait any longer to protect the American people.
Former Assistant for Homeland Security to Administrator Christine Todd Whitman, Environmental Protection Agency
Former staff member, National Security Council & Senate Intelligence Committee
Lieutenant General Russel L Honoré, US Army (Ret)
Major General Randy Manner, US Army (Ret), former Acting Director, Defense Threat Reduction Agency
 Beers testified on March 30, 2011, to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce:
The Administration supports, where possible, using safer technology, to enhance the security of the nation’s high-risk chemical facilities. Similarly, we recognize that risk management requires balancing threat, vulnerabilities, and consequences with the costs and benefits of mitigating risk. In this context, the Administration has established the following policy principles in regard to inherently safer technologies (IST) at high-risk chemical facilities:
- The Administration supports consistency of IST approaches for facilities regardless of sector.
- The Administration believes that all high-risk chemical facilities, Tiers 1-4, should assess IST methods and report the assessment in the facilities’ SSPs.
- Further, the appropriate regulatory entity should have the authority to require facilities posing the highest degree of risk (Tiers 1 and 2) to implement IST method(s) if such methods demonstrably enhance overall security, are determined to be feasible, and, in the case of water sector facilities, consider public health and environmental requirements.
- For Tier 3 and 4 facilities, the appropriate regulatory entity should review the IST assessment contained in the SSP. The entity should be authorized to provide recommendations on implementing IST, but it would not have the authority to require facilities to implement the IST methods.
- The Administration believes that flexibility and staggered implementation would be required in implementing this new IST policy.
This article also appears on Huffington Post.