Bullard: Safeguard the nation’s chemical facilities

The West chemical disaster was among the worst chemical disasters in recent years, killing 15 people and injuring more than 200. It is a tragedy that exposes multiple levels of failure: a failure in the chemical industry to safely store on-site toxins and a failure at state and especially federal levels of government to prevent these tragedies in the first place.

Even more alarmingly, the fertilizer plant explosion in West has hardly been an isolated incident. Since West, there have been at least 10 major chemical accidents across the country, some of which have resulted in fatalities and injuries to facility staff and first responders — and thanks to industry pressure, congressional gridlock and lack of oversight, we are still at risk of another disaster. Across the nation, almost 500 chemical facilities each put 100,000 or more people directly in harm’s way, according to their own reports to the EPA.

President Barack Obama took a major step Aug. 1 when he signed an executive order which requires the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Homeland Security and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to draft plans to ensure the nation’s chemical plants are made as safe as possible in the event of an accident, natural disaster or terrorist attack. By Oct. 31, those agencies are supposed to recommend new safety standards to the president that will prevent future tragedies like what happened in West.

The EPA should now follow the Obama directive and use its authority under the Clean Air Act to require chemical facilities to switch to safer chemicals and processes wherever feasible and economical. That’s the only way we’re going to be able to safeguard our families and prevent another West.

The president’s plan is particularly important for Texas, where we have more of these facilities than any other state; our big cities like Austin, Dallas and Houston are particularly saturated with dangerous chemical facilities. For instance, the Albert Ullrich Water Treatment Plant not far from the heart of our state’s Capitol, which uses deadly chlorine gas to purify water, potentially puts as many as 460,000 Austinites at risk of illness, injury or even, in the worst-case scenarios, death.

This story is repeated across the country in major cities and small communities alike. Communities of color, which are already living with increased exposure to pollution from chemical facilities, are often disproportionately at risk of chemical disasters. When a chemical disaster happens, these are the communities who will bear the greatest cost of life and health, making this one of the biggest environmental justice issues of our time.

Fortunately, there are safer, cost-effective alternative processes that have actually eliminated these catastrophic risks — and hundreds of plants across the country have already converted. For example, the Seabrook wastewater facility converted from chlorine gas to liquid bleach, eliminating the catastrophic hazard it posed to its workers and more than 60,000 area residents.

Moreover, the Environmental Protection Agency has the authority to require the use of safer alternatives wherever they are feasible. In March 2012, the EPA’s National Environmental Justice Advisory Council decided to recommend the EPA exercise this authority to confront this threat as they realized that Congress was not going to take any meaningful action. The council is an official advisory committee to the EPA that is made up of local government officials, community leaders, business representatives and members of civil society. Now that Congress has refused to act responsibly, implementing the council’s recommendations remains the last best hope of the communities threatened by these hazards.

With his executive order, President Obama is allowing the EPA to take the lead in protecting our communities. The EPA should now move swiftly to fully implement the Clean Air Act and eliminate these hazards wherever possible.

Bullard is dean of the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University.

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