Saturday, August 1, 2009

Chemical Plant Safety

There was a major explosion last year at a Bayer chemical plant in West Virginia, in which two employees were killed. Congressional investigators reported in April that the blast could have been far more deadly had it gone in a different direction. These revelations provide more evidence — as if more were needed — that the nation needs a tough chemical plant security law, this year.

The explosion last August sent a fireball into the air. The staff of the House Energy and Commerce Committee reported that the blast nearly compromised a nearby tank filled with several tons of methyl isocyanate, the same toxic chemical that leaked from the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, in 1984, killing thousands of people. If things had gone badly, according to the staff, the consequences might have been worse than in Bhopal.

Chemical plants, where large amounts of highly toxic chemicals are routinely stored, are the nation’s greatest terrorism vulnerability. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, environmental groups and others have been pushing for a federal law that imposes tough safety regulations on the plants. One of their highest priorities has been a mandate that plants replace particularly dangerous chemicals, like chlorine, with safer alternatives when practical.

So far, Congress has failed to come through. In 2006, it sided with the chemical industry and passed an extremely weak law. That faulty law sunsets this fall, which gives Congress a new chance to make things right.

The next law should impose strong, mandatory safety rules. It should contain a safer-chemicals requirement, protection for whistleblowers, and a provision allowing citizens to sue for violations. It should make clear that the federal rules do not pre-empt state laws, so states can do more to protect their residents if they want.

This will not be easy. The chemical industry, which is a major campaign contributor, has spent years fighting tougher safety rules, which it sees as a threat to its bottom line. The more the process is delayed, the harder it will be to get a good bill drafted and voted on.

There was a major explosion last year at a Bayer chemical plant in West Virginia, in which two employees were killed. Congressional investigators reported in April that the blast could have been far more deadly had it gone in a different direction. These revelations provide more evidence — as if more were needed — that the nation needs a tough chemical plant security law, this year.

The explosion last August sent a fireball into the air. The staff of the House Energy and Commerce Committee reported that the blast nearly compromised a nearby tank filled with several tons of methyl isocyanate, the same toxic chemical that leaked from the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, in 1984, killing thousands of people. If things had gone badly, according to the staff, the consequences might have been worse than in Bhopal.

Chemical plants, where large amounts of highly toxic chemicals are routinely stored, are the nation’s greatest terrorism vulnerability. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, environmental groups and others have been pushing for a federal law that imposes tough safety regulations on the plants. One of their highest priorities has been a mandate that plants replace particularly dangerous chemicals, like chlorine, with safer alternatives when practical.

So far, Congress has failed to come through. In 2006, it sided with the chemical industry and passed an extremely weak law. That faulty law sunsets this fall, which gives Congress a new chance to make things right.

The next law should impose strong, mandatory safety rules. It should contain a safer-chemicals requirement, protection for whistleblowers, and a provision allowing citizens to sue for violations. It should make clear that the federal rules do not pre-empt state laws, so states can do more to protect their residents if they want.

This will not be easy. The chemical industry, which is a major campaign contributor, has spent years fighting tougher safety rules, which it sees as a threat to its bottom line. The more the process is delayed, the harder it will be to get a good bill drafted and voted on.

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