Preventing chemical disasters: Labor and community groups say action must accompany words

Following the deadly April 17, 2013 explosion at the West, Texas West Fertilizer Company plant that killed fifteen people and injured hundreds – and a series of other catastrophic incidents involving hazardous materials – President Obama issued Executive Order 13650. It directed federal agencies to improve the safety and security of chemical facilities to reduce risks to workers, communities and first responders. To do so it established a working group, led by the Department of Labor, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Department of Homeland Security, that would report back to the President with recommendations for improving policies, practices and coordination between industry, state, local, federal, other authorities as well as community and other public interest groups. That report, Actions to Improve Chemical Facility Safety and Security – A Shared Commitment, was released on June 6th.

Produced with input from “listening sessions” and public comment from nearly 1,800 people in more than 25 states, the report calls for stronger community preparedness, better information about chemical hazards, and for improved risk management and safety procedures at facilities that use and store hazardous chemicals. It calls for establishment of a Chemical Facility Safety and Security National Working Group to improve coordination between federal agencies, and it summarizes what’s been done since EO 13650 was issued in August 2013. Steps taken over the preceding months include guidance from EPA, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and industry groups on the use of ammonium nitrate,  the chemical involved in the West, Texas disaster. What it does not do is set forth any new requirements for facilities where hazardous chemicals are used. Instead it sets the stage for possible future rule-making that would create enforceable regulations around safer chemical management practices.

“It’s a good document at looking at what they can do,” said Houston-based, Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (TEJAS) director Juan Parras in an interview. “But a lot would be based on a voluntary system. We were looking for harder words, such as 'mandate,’” he said. “We’re grateful for work that’s moving in the direction of addressing chemical security of vulnerable populations,” said Parras. But “volunteering is just not good enough.”

Parras expressed particular concern for communities like those he works with in the Houston area that live near not just one but many refineries and chemical plants. The federal report does reflect such concerns, saying, “Communities need to know where hazardous chemicals are used and stored, how to assess the risks associated with those chemicals, and how to ensure community preparedness for incidents that may occur.”

The report also notes that in its outreach to around the country, “Community members expressed concern about a perceived lack of effective communication from industry partners regarding incidents and general facility safety and performance.” There was particular concern, says the report, about how low-income and other vulnerable individuals would be protected in the event of a disaster. “Communities adjacent to multiple facilities,” – such as those represented by TEJAS – “also raised concerns regarding the failure to address the specific vulnerabilities of lower-income communities, including environmental justice considerations.”

“It’s clear that the Working Group listened to the voices of the communities and workers most at risk of chemical disasters.There are recommendations in their report that can help prevent disasters if they are enacted. But words are not enough. The Administration now has to turn these words into actions,” said Richard Moore, co-coordinator of the Environmental Justice Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform and former Chair of EPA’s National Environmental Justice Advisory Council.

“Not an endpoint”

The agencies releasing the report – the Department of Homeland Security, EPA and OSHA – stress in an accompanying blog post that the “report is a milestone, not an endpoint,” and that while it “describes many activities already undertaken to improve chemical facility safety and security, it also makes clear that much additional work is necessary to implement the consolidated action plan.”

Asked how each agency plans to work toward implementing the report’s recommendations, EPA and OSHA provided identical responses via email. Both statements said, “the Administration supports, where feasible, using safer technology to enhance the security of the nation's high-risk chemical facilities” and that the “Working Group will address the use of safer technology and alternatives by encouraging the use of a holistic approach to identifying hazards and reducing risk using a hierarchy of controls to guide the analysis.” Both also said “OSHA and EPA will consider requirements to incorporate safer technologies or process safety alternatives into the facility process hazard analysis although they will not direct what technologies or process safety alternatives need to be used by facilities.”

Risk reduction “has already occurred organically under the Chemical Facilities Anti-Terrorism Standards (CFATS), “as companies review their chemical processes and security practices and industry is taking upon itself to use safer alternatives,” said EPA and OSHA in these statements.

What EPA and OSHA are referring to are the changes made by many water treatment plants – and other facilities – to increase security by eliminating or reducing on-site storage of chlorine (a potential explosive), among other chemical hazards after 9/11.

“Instead of the voluntary inherently safer technology (IST) initiatives described in this report the White House should give the EPA a green light to pursue IST requirements that eliminate catastrophic hazards the way Clorox did and hundreds of other plants have done including the Washington, DC waster water plant which converted in 90 days after the 9/11 attacks.  Clorox's 5 plants eliminated this risk to 13 million people and DC eliminated a similar risk to 1.7 million people including the Capitol building and White House,” said Rick Hind, Legislative Director of Greenpeace’s Toxics Campaign.

Charlotte Brody, Vice President for Health Initiatives with the BlueGreen Alliance, a coalition of environmental and labor groups, also points to 9/11 as a turning point in galvanizing awareness of the role of safer technologies – safer materials, fewer chemical hazards – in protecting not only communities but also first responders. Elevated cancer rates among World Trade Center first responders and firefighters elsewhere, including San Francisco, says Brody, “has increased the recognition that we make stuff that when it burns makes firefighters sick.”

The federal report, said Brody, presents opportunities to organize concerted efforts around improving specific aspects of chemical safety – such as moving away from the use of the extremely hazardous chemical hydrogen fluoride that used as a catalyst in numerous chemical manufacturing processes – and by looking to other industries’ models – such as that the airlines use – for implementing safety improvements. But she says, voluntary efforts will only go so far, and “regulatory reform is needed to lift the bottom.”

What’s expected next from the Administration is an “alert” from EPA and OSHA, “followed by guidance to promote the use of safer alternatives and technology” and possible rule-making to revise “process safety management” and “risk management plan” standards. “The agencies’ ultimate coverage of  safer alternatives will depend on the outcome of the regulatory process,” said OSHA via email.

Chemicals continue to endanger workers and communities

Meanwhile on June 9, workers at a Koch Foods chicken processing plant in Gainesville, Georgia were evacuated and four were hospitalized following an ammonia leak. On June 7, an ammonia leak at a Farmland Foods pork processing plant in Wichita, Kansas caused three injuries, including one reported as “serious,” and evacuation of the plant. Two days earlier, a chlorine vapor leak from a BNSF tank car in Lafayette, Louisiana prompted the evacuation of two nearby businesses and prompted questions about local air quality, including whether or not area residents could safely use their air conditioners. The same day, in Bristol, Virginia, an uncontrolled chemical reaction in a Strongwell Corporation plant’s resin room (the company manufactures building components) caused one worker to be hospitalized, exposed several others who went through a decontamination process, and prompted evacuation of the premises.

“When another chemical disaster occurs, the question that will be asked is: why wasn’t this prevented,” says Rick Hind.


Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green ChemistryHigh Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific AmericanYale e360Environmental Health PerspectivesEnsia, The Washington Post, Salon and The Nation. 




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