March 23, 2015

Leaders Tell Obama: Time Running Out On Preventing Chemical Disasters


Late last week, hundreds of organizations and people sent a letter to President Obama warning that his administration is running of time to act on an issue long-identified by the President as essential to our national security and public safety: protecting our people from the dangers of accidents or deliberate attacks at U.S. chemical plants.

I signed this letter, along with leaders including retired Army General Russel Honore, the commander of Task Force Katrina, and 9-11 widow Kristen Breitweiser, and organizations including the Environmental Justice Health Alliance, United Steelworkers, Sierra Club, and Greenpeace.

I have been involved in the effort to get our government to act on this issue for more then a decade, but the basic problem identified in an op-ed I co-authored in the New York Times eleven years ago has not changed. There was then — and there is now — a real risk of another terrible chemical catastrophe, like India’s massive Bhopal tragedy. In the wake of the 9-11 attacks, it seemed clearer than ever that such a chemical disaster could be triggered not only by accident but also by terrorists.  As President Bush’s director of the Environmental Protection Agency, Christine Todd Whitman, recognized then, the public would be better protected if industrial facilities moved away from hazardous chemicals and toward safer alternatives where feasible.

Some companies, like Clorox, have taken responsibility and embraced these changes. But others, like Koch Industries, have lobbied heavily in Washington to prevent common sense reforms.  As a result, Americans remain at serious risk.

As a Senator, Barack Obama was a leading advocate of changes to prevent chemical disasters; he called these facilities “stationary weapons of mass destruction spread all across the country.” After an April 2013 ammonium nitrate explosion killed 15 people and injured 160 more in West, Texas, President Obama ordered new measures, and a group of federal agencies have been developing new rules. We don’t know yet how strong these rules will be, but we do know now that the agencies have set a timetable that seems to be too slow to ensure progress.  The next president may not share President Obama’s concern with this serious national security issue, or his determination to take on special interests in order to get real reforms.

We hope the President will heed our call, and act promptly.  Below is the text of the letter.

This article also appears on Huffington Post.

The President
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500

March 19, 2015

Dear Mr. President:

We write to strongly urge you to take prompt and decisive action to address a danger you have highlighted for a decade – the threat to our communities and workers from accidents or deliberate attacks on U.S. chemical plants. Your Administration is running out of time to make a real difference on this critical issue.

We were grateful when, after the tragic West, Texas disaster in April 2013, you issued Executive Order (EO) 13650, “Improving Chemical Facility Safety and Security,” that directed federal agencies to modernize safety regulations. As a result, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is considering revisions to its Risk Management Program (RMP) regulation, but has postponed proposing changes until September. We believe that this schedule will jeopardize finalizing a rule before you leave office and therefore needs to be accelerated.

Your past leadership on preventing chemical disasters has been unparalleled. The millions of men, woman and children living, studying, playing and working within high risk zones near hundreds of chemical facilities are counting on you to prevent future tragedies. To ensure that new rules do take effect, they must be finalized well in advance of the end of your administration’s term in office.

EPA’s RMP data, first reported in 1999, exposed the overwhelming danger of these hazards to workers, first responders, children, and surrounding communities. In 2006, as a U.S. Senator, you stated emphatically that “these plants are stationary weapons of mass destruction spread all across the country.” According to a December 2014 Congressional Research Service analysis, 466 of these facilities each put 100,000 or more people at risk of a catastrophic disaster.

Fortunately, safer cost-effective chemical processes are widely available. Since 2001, hundreds of chemical facilities have switched to safer chemical processes and eliminated these risks to 40 million people in 47 states. For example, in 2012, the Clorox Company completed conversion of all of its U.S. facilities to a safer manufacturing process. While this is encouraging, reliance solely on voluntary efforts has left more than 100 million people in the U.S. at risk of death or injury because they live and work inside “vulnerability zones” surrounding the high-risk chemical facilities.

Section 112(r)(7)(A) of the Clean Air Act provides the EPA with rule-making authority to prevent future tragedies by requiring chemical facility owners and operators to use, where feasible, safer processes that will reduce or eliminate the potential for a catastrophic chemical incident. Safer processes are the only foolproof way to eliminate or dramatically reduce the loss of human life in such an event, whether it is triggered by an accident, natural disaster, or terrorism.

These catastrophic hazards became obvious following the 9/11 attacks and after every attack since. In 2002, the EPA under then-Administrator Christine Todd Whitman proposed using the Clean Air Act’s disaster prevention authority to make chemical facilities “inherently safer by reducing quantities of hazardous chemicals handled or stored, substituting less hazardous chemicals for extremely hazardous ones, or otherwise modifying the design of processes to reduce or eliminate chemical hazards.” Tragically, the Bush administration, under pressure from special interest lobbyists, scuttled this proposal.

In your 2008 book Change We Can Believe In you promised, “An Obama Administration will…[s]ecure our chemical plants by setting a clear set of federal regulations that all plants must follow, including improving barriers, containment, mitigation and safety training, and wherever possible, using safer technology, such as less toxic chemicals.”

On April 3, 2012, Governor Whitman wrote EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson urging the use of “authorities you can apply to reduce these hazards before a tragedy of historic proportions occurs.” And following the West, Texas, disaster, then-EPA Administrator Jackson told MSNBC, “We need to use the authority we have now.”

Due to the billions of dollars of potential liability, the Association of American Railroads issued a statement in 2008 saying: “It’s time for the big chemical companies to do their part to help protect America. They should stop manufacturing dangerous chemicals when safer substitutes are available…” More recently, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board recommended in its May 1, 2014 final report on the 2010 Tesoro refinery disaster that the EPA issue new rules under the Agency’s Clean Air Act authority

We respectfully urge you to use your authority to expedite finalizing a rule that will eliminate these potentially catastrophic hazards wherever feasible. As organizations committed to this objective, we look to your office to ensure that this critical rule is finalized as soon as possible.

Thank you for your leadership on this important issue.


Kristen Breitweiser
9/11 Widow

Monique Harden
Advocates for Environmental Human Rights

Adrian Shelley
Air Alliance Houston

Pamela K. Miller
Alaska Community Action on Toxics

Katie Huffling
Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments

Rick Wilson
American Friends Service Committee WV Economic Justice Project

Diane E. Brown
Arizona Public Interest Research Group

Miya Yoshitani
Asian Pacific Environmental Network

Heather Cantino
Athens County Fracking Action Network

Jim Puckett
Basel Action Network

Jay Feldman
Beyond Pesticides

Charlotte Brody
BlueGreen Alliance

Jeanne Rizzo, R.N.
Breast Cancer Fund

Emily Rusch
California Public Interest Research Group (CalPIRG)

Steve Savner
Center for Community Change

Katherine McFate
Center for Effective Government

Michael Green
Center for Environmental Health

Lois Marie Gibbs
Center for Health, Environment & Justice

Carroll Muffett
Center for International Environmental Law

Barbara Warren, RN, MS
Citizens’ Environmental Coalition

Maria D. Cabrera
City Councilwoman, City of Wilmington, Delaware

Erin Heaney
Clean Air Coalition of Western New York

Saleem Chapman
Clean Air Council

Kathleen A. Curtis, LPN
Clean and Healthy New York

Mark Rossi, PhD
Clean Production Action

Robert Wendelgass
Clean Water Action

Amy Goldsmith
Clean Water Action, New Jersey

Nic Clark
Clean Water Action, Michigan

Andy Galli
Clean Water Action, Maryland

Myron Arnowitt
Clean Water Action, Pennsylvania

Meg Kerr
Clean Water Action, Rhode Island

Anne Hulick
Clean Water Action, Connecticut

Andria Ventura
Clean Water Action, California

Sara Lu
Clean Water Action, Colorado

Kathy Aterno
Clean Water Action, Florida

Elizabeth Saunders
Clean Water Action Alliance of Massachusetts

Deanna White
Clean Water Action Alliance of Minnesota

Danny Katz
Colorado Public Interest Research Group (CoPIRG)

Judy Robinson
Coming Clean

David Le Grande
Communications Workers of America

Sofia Martinez
Concerned Citizens of Wagon Mound and Mora County

Evan Preston
Connecticut Public Interest Research Group (ConnPIRG)

Amy Roe, Ph.D.
Delaware Chapter of the Sierra Club

Paulyne A Webster
Delaware Concerned Residents For Environmental Justice

Lisa Locke
Delaware Interfaith Power & Light

Beverly Wright, Ph.D.
Deep South Center for Environmental Justice

Eric Kirkendall
Diesel Health Project

Dr. Robert D. Bullard
Environmental Justice Leader

Trip Van Noppen

Angela Adrar

Jeff Gearhart
Ecology Center

Margie Alt
Environment America

Luke Metzger
Environment Texas

Richard A. Denison, Ph.D.
Environmental Defense Fund

Emma Halas-O’Connor
Environmental Health Strategy Center/Prevent Harm

Michele Roberts
Environmental Justice Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform

Renee C. Sharp
Environmental Working Group

Jeannie Economos
Farmworker Association of Florida

David Halperin
Former Staff Member, National Security Council & Senate Intelligence Committee

Gerald Poje, PhD
Founding Member, U.S. Chemical Safety Board

Erich Pica
Friends of the Earth

Monica Wilson
GAIA: Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives

Denny Larson
Global Community Monitor

Fran Teplitz
Green America

Jeremy Hays
Green For All

Arlene Blum, PhD
Green Science Policy Institute

Sue Phelan

Annie Leonard

Bill Walsh
Healthy Building Network

Henry S. Cole, Ph.D
Henry S. Cole Environmental Associates, Inc.

Abe Scarr
Illinois PIRG

Sam Loesche
International Brotherhood of Teamsters

Ted Smith
International Campaign for Responsible Technology

John Morawetz
International Chemical Workers Union Council

Sanford Lewis
Investor Environmental Health Network

José T. Bravo
Just Transition Alliance

Chad Cordell
Kanawha Forest Coalition

Heather Warman
Kentucky Environmental Foundation

Dr. Theresa Cordova
Las Pistoleras Institute cultural de Arte

Tiernan Sittenfeld
League of Conservation Voters

Tracy Gregoire
Learning Disabilities Association of Maine

LT. General Russel Honore, US Army (Ret)

Karen Savage
Life Support Project

Richard Moore
Los Jardines Institute

Anne Rolfes
Louisiana Bucket Brigade

Major General Randy Manner, US Army (Ret)

Emily Scarr
Maryland PIRG

Ken and Penny Dryden
Minority Workforce Development Coalition

Trisha Sheehan
Moms Clean Air Force

Dorothy Felix
Mossville Environmental Action Now

Anna Galland

Mary Vogel
National Council for Occupational Safety and Health

Scott Slesinger
Natural Resources Defense Council

Rev. M. Dele
Nature’s Friends

Carol E. Gay
New Jersey State Industrial Union Council

Janice Selinger
NJ Work Environment Council

Niaz Dorry
Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance

Janet Keating
Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition

Dave Rosenfeld
Oregon State Public Interest Research Group (OSPIRG)

Maya Nye
People Concerned About Chemical Safety

Judy Hatcher
Pesticide Action Network North America

Kathy Attar
Physicians for Social Responsibility

Karen A D’Andrea
Physicians for Social Responsibility Maine Chapter

Richard Gibson
Physicians for Social Responsibility of Greater Kansas

Barbara H. Warren, MD, MPH
Physicians for Social Responsibility, Arizona

Peter Orris, MD, MPH
Professor and Chief of Service, Occupational and Environmental Medicine, University of Illinois Hospital and Health Sciences System

Laura Punnett, Sc.D.
Professor, Dept. of Work Environment, & UML Distinguished University Professor (2013-16), University of Massachusetts Lowell

Rena Steinzor
Professor, University of Maryland Law School and President, Center for Progressive Reform

Tom Smith
Public Citizen (Texas)

Tyson Slocum
Public Citizen

Amy Laura Cahn
Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia

Eboni Cochran
REACT (Rubbertown Emergency ACTion)

Liz Hitchcock
Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families

Robert M. Gould, MD
San Francisco Bay Area Chapter, Physicians for Social Responsibility

Ted Schettler
Science and Environmental Health Network

Deborah Moore
Second Look

Jon Barton
Service Employees International Union

Terry McGuire
Sierra Club

Neil Carman, PhD
Sierra Club’s Lone Star Chapter

Diana Lopez
Southwest Workers Union

Jennifer Crosslin
Steps Coalition

Michael O’Heaney
Story of Stuff Project

Robin Schneider
Texas Campaign for the Environment

Juan Parras
Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (T.E.J.A.S.)

Diane Wilson
Texas Injured Workers

Anjum Hanafi, MPH
Texas Physicians for Social Responsibility

Sara E. Smith, JD
Texas Public Interest Research Group (TexPIRG)

James Trice
The Praxis Project

Kristina Mazzocchi, Esq.
The Steelworkers’ Tony Mazzocchi Center for Health, Safety and Environmental Education

Andre Delattre
U.S. Public Interest Research Group

Yogin Kothari
Union of Concerned Scientists

Michael J. Wright
United Steelworkers

Elizabeth C. Yeampierre

Bruce Amundson, MD
Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility

Cecil Corbin-Mark
WE ACT for Environmental Justice

Dr. Henry Clark
West County Toxics Coalition

Gary Zuckett
West Virginia Citizen Action Group

Jeffrey S. Allen
West Virginia Council of Churches

Bill Price
West Virginia Environmental Council

Carey Jo Grace
West Virginia Healthy Kids And Families Coalition

Cynthia D. Ellis
West Virginia Highlands Conservancy

Angie Rosser
West Virginia Rivers Coalition

Julie Archer
West Virginia Surface Owners’ Rights Organization

Jen Burns
West Virginia Sustainable Business Council

Peter Skopec
Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group (WISPIRG)

Ciera Pennington

Senator Barbara Boxer
Senator Edward Markey
Senator Tom Udall
Senator Cory Booker
Representative Frank Pallone
Gina McCarthy, Administrator, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency