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