Chemical Catastrophe, Coming Right Up!

Chemical catastrophes begin at home. With sloppy oversight, bad engineering, tragic mistakes. We are literally our own nightmare when it comes to titanic explosions and spills. So why do we continue to walk the tightrope until it becomes a noose? I dug the dirty ditches for AlterNet.

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

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.”