June 6, 2014

Obama Task Force on Chemical Dangers: Strong Enough?

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Last year, a devastating chemical plant explosion in the town of West, Texas,  killed 15 people and injured 160 more.  The tragedy seemed to reawaken in President Obama a determination to improve safety and security at America’s industrial chemical facilities, whose dangers, from catastrophic accident or terrorist attack, led him, as a Senator, to call them “stationary weapons of mass destruction spread all across the country.”  Obama spoke movingly at a memorial services for the Texas victims.  And he issued an executive order directing federal agencies to develop a plan for action to prevent future disasters.

The President’s task force, minutes ago, issued a “status report” outlining that plan.

Environmental justice groups, labor unions, and others have been working for decades to press one demand above all: that chemical plants be required to switch to using safer materials where feasible. (I’ve been part of this effort for a decade.) This approach was advanced after the September 11 attacks by George W. Bush’s EPA head, Christine Todd Whitman, and both Whitman and Obama’s first EPA director, Lisa Jackson, are now urging it.  But lobbyists for the chemical industry, backed by campaign contributions to politicians, have prevented such reforms; the Koch brothers, heavily invested in this industry, have led the resistance. Again, it was Senator Obama who said it best: “We cannot allow chemical industry lobbyists to dictate the terms of this debate. We cannot allow our security to be hijacked” by special interests.

It’s possible, but not clear from the status report, that the Obama Administration is prioritizing an effort to compel use of safer materials.  The report details plans to strengthen preparedness, coordination, and data management. When it comes to the critical issue of safer technologies, the report says the Administration will alert chemical companies to the dangers of certain chemicals, and “develop voluntary guidance for operators on how to reduce risks by employing safer technology, processes, and alternatives.” Beyond that, the report says that the government should “consider regulatory options” to “include safer technologies.” However, the government “would not … determine specific technology, design, or process selection by chemical facility owners or operators.”

This language in the task force report does not rule out the possibility that the Administration is aiming to take a tougher stance when it comes to actually issuing regulations. But it suggests that strong public pressure is important now if we are to get serious rules.  And the public must demand that the rules get completed before President Obama leaves office.  A President Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio would likely be listening mostly to the chemical industry, so now might be a once-in-a-generation chance to get something done.

More than 134 million people live in danger zones created by about 3400 U.S. facilities that manufacture chemicals, produce paper, treat water, generate electric power, refine petroleum, or otherwise use or store hazardous materials.  Millions more people work in or visit these areas.

There are serious risks that today’s chemical plants could unleash a catastrophic accident, like the 1984 pesticide plant disaster at Bhopal, India, which caused 20,000 deaths. In an average year, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board reviews some 250 high consequence chemical incidents involving death, injury, evacuation, or serious environmental or property damage.

There is also the possibility that terrorists could trigger a chemical plant attack in our country.  In 2003, a government panel warned that chemical plants in the US could be al Qaeda targets. Media investigations have highlighted weak or nonexistent security at these facilities, with gates unlocked and chemical tanks unguarded.

We owe it to the victims of West, Texas, and all the people living and working near these chemical facilities, to take strong action.

UPDATE [11:59 am] : The Coalition to Prevent Chemical Disasters (in which I participate as a consultant to Greenpeace) issued a statement demanding stronger action:

While we are pleased the Working Group report included some of the recommendations made by the most endangered communities and workers, if the Obama Administration is serious about protecting workers and communities, the president must stand up for prevention requirements that include safer chemicals and processes. The people of West, Texas deserve better than the voluntary half-measures in today’s report. They, and millions of Americans like them, deserve real safeguards from the threat of chemical disasters that are adopted as enforceable requirements — not just voluntary recommendations that the industry can ignore until the next disaster. The true test of President Obama’s call to action will come with the EPA’s Request For Information (RFI), due to be issued in the federal register in the coming weeks.

The special interests that have blocked chemical facility disaster prevention policies for the last 30 years have had their way long enough. It is time for the President and federal agencies to move forward with strong and enforceable safeguards that prioritize the safety of the workers and communities most at risk.

We cannot wait for more disasters like West, Texas; Richmond, California; and Anacortes, Washington. Communities and workers should not be asked to put their lives and health at high risk one day longer than they already have.

This article also appears on Huffington Post