Trend: Responsible chemical plants adopt "inherent safer technology" on their own

Published 26 April 2006

The chemical industry has resigned itself to some form of federal regulations of safety measures at chemical plants; one of the major goals of industry lobbyists is now to make sure that safety legislation does not mandate plants to replace the most dangerous chemicals they produce or use with inherently safer chemicals; more than 200 plants have already made the switch on their own, showing that it is not economically prohibitive to do so

The greatest threat to public safety in the United States, and the greatest risk for a mass-casualty incident, are posed by the country’s 15,000 chemical plants. The industry made sure to contribute handsomely to President Bush’s various campaigns and the White House and friends of the industry in Congress rewarded it by resisting formulating minimal safety standards which chemical facilities would have to follow. This has begun to change, and both Congress and DHS are now pushing for some safety standards which producers of toxic chemicals will have meet.”

The chemical industry has resigned itself to the fact that its euphemistically called, and largely meaningless, “voluntary, industry-developed” standards are no longer acceptable even to friends, and instead of resisting the development of minimal safety standards has concentrated its lobbying efforts on two elements in the proposed legislation: First, the industry wants to make sure that the new — and relatively weak — federal standards would supersede the much tougher state standards which some states have already enacted; second, the industry wants to make sure that the legislation will not call for chemical plants located near population centers to replace the most poisonous and volatile chemicals they use with safer materials.”

The Democratic-leaning, Washington, D.C.-based Center for American Progress reports, however, that since 2001, some 225 industrial plants switched to less hazardous chemicals, a move the center estimated limited the exposure of more than thirty million people. The report, “Preventing Toxic Terrorism,” also called on Congress to adopt legislation pushing more plants to make the change. “What this report shows is that risk elimination is possible,” said P. J. Crowley, a senior fellow at the center.”

Among the report’s findings:

””“”” Some 284 facilities in forty-seven states have dramatically reduced the danger of a chemical release into nearby communities by switching to less acutely hazardous processes or chemicals or moving to safer locations

””“”” As a result of these changes, at least thirty million people no longer live under the threat of a major toxic gas cloud from these facilities

””“”” Eleven of these facilities formerly threatened more than one million people; another 33 facilities threatened more than 100,000; and an additional 100 threatened more than 10,000

””“”” Of respondents that provided cost estimates, roughly half reported spending less than $100,000 to switch to safer alternatives, and few spent over $1 million

””“”” Survey respondents represent a range of facilities small and large, including water utilities, manufacturers, power plants, service