Environment

Chemical Danger: Industry's Greed Is Putting Millions of Americans at Risk

When it comes to chemical safety, we're more at risk of industry incompetence or greed than a terrorist attack. Safer alternatives exists, so why won't industry use them?

Responsibility for chemical security may be shared among federal, state and local governments, as well as the private sector, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's online factsheet on that fearsomely vulnerable area of critical infrastructure. But right now they're all epically failing us, which make us sitting ducks if there is a catastrophe.

But the American public probably has much less to fear from terrorists out murderously prowling the nation's wide-open industrial sites than it does from the sites themselves, whose corporate owners are being dragged kicking and whining into safer chemical conversions and technologies that are a new-millennium no-brainer to everyone but them. And even if terrorists do pose an astronomically probable threat, it's only at the behest of industry and government, which have colluded to basically do nothing to upgrade their sites since 9/11 to safeguard over 80 million Americans from catastrophic accident or attack on petroleum refineries, bleach plants, chemical conversion facilities and more.

"These facilities are inherently dangerous if they're storing dangerous chemicals on site and have communities around them," John Deans, toxics campaigner for Greenpeace, told AlterNet by phone. "We're trying to prevent the American version of the Bhopal disaster. It could happen any number of ways. Look at the recent Mariner rig exposion, the BP spill, the mine accidents and more. We see industry accidents all the time."

What Americans have yet to see are foreign or domestic terrorist attacks on any of these facilities. Which begs the inevitable question: Who are the real terrorists, and who are the invented ones? Is industry incompetence or greed, which has been nakedly evidenced in the Gulf of Mexico's various rig blasts and bleeds, more lethal in our supposedly securitized homeland than al Qaeda, Tea Party or other fringe lunatics? Should we be adding Dow, Sunoco, Occidental and Koch to the FBI's most wanted list?

Not according to Senator Frank R. Lautenberg, D-NJ, who in July put forth a comprehensive legislative package designed to protect the nation's chemical, wastewater and drinking water facilities from "debilitating terrorist attacks." The Secure Water Facilities Act (PDF) and Secure Chemical Facilities Act (PDF) would force companies with high-risk sites to apply Inherently Safer Technology (IST) that would, according to the American Chemical Society, "greatly reduce potential threats to public and worker safety, health, the environment and plant and public infrastructure from a variety of scenarios that might result in the release -- fugitive or otherwise -- of hazardous and toxic materials."

In other words, the technology exists to do things more safely; companies just aren't doing it. This legislation would help force that change.

IST is a mostly no-brainer upgrade; it doesn't mandate that these facilities need to tear everything down and rebuild all over again. Instead, it just suggests that, for example, water utilities switch from chlorine and sulfur dioxide gas to liquid bleach or UV light, petroleum refineries replace hydrofluoric acid with newer solid acid catalysts or, most importantly, facilities generate or employ on-site alternatives that negate the need to transport lethally unstable materials by rail or truck. Keeping this stuff off freeways and railroads alone could avoid endangering millions of Americans who live near delivery routes.

"It's not as if the technologies to make these companies safer are out of reach," Lisa Gilbert, democracy advocate for United States Public Interest Research Groups (USPIRG) told AlterNet. "Both acts have the components to reduce risk to Americans."

Of course, proposing an Act, or two, is comparative cake to actually getting an Act passed, especially in our currently debilitating partisan deadlocks on Capitol Hill and the White House. As recession-proof as anything with the phrase "terrorist attack" happens to be these days, Americans must still rely on both scattered Democrats and sellout Republicans to meet in the middle for the obvious safety of their constituents. And that evidently is hard to do when the same companies relentlessly opposed to change of any kind are buying off the committees in charge of the regulatory environment.

According to the recent USPIRG report, "Chemical Insecurity," prepared by Gilbert and USPIRG public health advocate Elizabeth Hitchcock, the 14 companies in danger of widespread human collateral damage due to industrial accident or terrorist attack -- Clorox, Kuehne Chemical, JCI Jones, KIK Custom Products, DuPont, PVS Chemicals, Olin, DX Holding, Solvay, Valero, Occidental Petroleum, Honeywell, Dow Chemical, and Sunoco -- and their affiliated trade associations have funneled more than $70 million to the politicians charged with overseeing them.

"Of the 14 companies we found to be most dangerous, we found that political action committees for Valero, Sunoco and Occidental contributed double to the Energy and Commerce Committee compared to what they contributed to the rest of the House," Gilbert said. "Corporations have a real incentive to make contributions to committees that regulate them, and what they're spending on lobbyists is pretty impressive."

But not as impressive as the mounting evidence that industry inaction is getting more dangerous by the day. You can add last week's explosion at a Honeywell uranium enrichment facility to the list of recently extravagant chemical screw-ups mentioned by Greenpeace's Deans above. The sad part? Nuclear regulators had allowed the plant to reboot core production at the facility only the day before, after shutting it down for two months because too much uranium was showing up in workers' urine samples.

The scariest part? Those aforementioned workers were actually replacement workers -- scabs, in union jargon -- pulled in to supplant the facility's original employees, who weren't too happy that Honeywell was slashing their health care coverage and retirement benefits. To cap this bit of salacious idiocy, it should be noted that Honeywell's plant is the only facility in the nation capable of enriching uranium oxide into uranium hexafluoride, which produces fuel for nuclear reactors and weapons.

Honeywell's facility is definitely not alone in its dire need for a reality upgrade. Greenpeace has recently issued failed citizen inspection reports to Kuehne Chemical Co. and DuPont, which together combine to put around 14 million Americans at catastrophic risk. Future independent assessments of Dow and even the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico are likely to be just as disheartening. Only Clorox has truly stepped into the chemical industry's inevitable future and converted to safer technologies and processes. "Clorox is an industry leader," said Deans of one listed threat looking to change its chemical game. "We'd certainly hold them up as an example in this particular arena to show that conversion of facilities are possible. If they can do it, why can't everyone?"

Of course, Deans knows the answer, and so do you. The industry laggards are being enabled by a horde of compromised politicians they happily paid to do nothing. You need look no further than Homeland Security's Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards (CFATS), whose regulations finally came into effect in June 2007, nearly six years after 9/11. Its false security blanket is full of toxic holes, according to Deans. "Even Senator Susan Collins [R-ME] called it a placeholder," he said. "Under CFATS, there are several security gaps: 125 refineries are exempt from the program, including those of Valero, Sunoco and Occidental. A Maritime Transportation Security Act loophole allowed plants on waterways to be defined as a port facilities, so they're under the watch of the Coast Guard, who don't have as comprehensive facility regulations. Wastewater and drinking water facilities are also exempt. But they all have the same vulnerabilities; the chemical agents might be different, but they're just as dangerous. So we want something that's more comprehensive."

"We are attempting to amend CFATS," agreed USPIRG's Hitchcock. "There has been a longstanding effort that predates 9/11 to reduce the consequences of an accident posing a danger to the surrounding community. We gained steam after 9/11, because the issue operates in both the security and safety frames. We know accidents regularly happen, such as at the Bayer facility a few years ago, which could have been as bad as Bhopal. Accidents are regular events. So we're continuing to urge the Senate to do what the House did, which is to pass comprehensive legislation to safeguard our communities from both industrial accidents and terrorist attacks."

But don't be fooled by that comparatively paranoid terrorism talk. These unnecessarily overdue regulations are designed to protect Americans not from mosque-crazy Muslims or their alleged plant in the Oval Office. They're to protect poor, usually disenfranchised Americans from vastly richer Americans who want their devalued labor or capital more than they need to make sure not to kill them on the job. "It's your money or life," John Lennon infamously sang in his 1974 hit single "Whatever Gets You Thru the Night."

Whether it is because of misplaced paranoia over foreign terrorism or because of common-sense domestic disaster prevention, it's obvious that true chemical security needs to happen, and happen now. Whatever gets it through "federal, state, and local governments, as well as the private sector," as DHS explained above, is, as Lennon sang, "All right." But it's nevertheless wrong to assume that this is simply a terrorism issue. As rampant deregulation of the global economy, energy sector, mass media and more has so far proven without contravention, we are our own worst enemies, which is to say terrorists. Especially when we exchange lives for money.

"Chemical facilities are prepositioned WMDs," said Deans. "Even Mohammed Atta looked at them. But this policy was worked on before 9/11, so it's about what direction we want to go in. The Secure Water Facilities Act and Secure Chemical Facilities Act would provide a local stimulus for communities and the chemical industry, while creating 8,000 new jobs. So the industry's only argument is against disrupting the status quo. And we've learned that's disastrous."

Scott Thill runs the online mag Morphizm.com. His writing has appeared on Salon, XLR8R, All Music Guide, Wired and others.