An Open Letter to President Obama – Domestic Catastrophic Risk Demands Action Behind the Talk
President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, D.C. 20500
July 22, 2016
Dear President Obama:
As Senators, you and Joe Biden were leaders in highlighting the threat of America’s hazardous chemical plants – and in calling for solutions that included moving these facilities to inherently safer technologies. In 2006, you bluntly stated “these plants are stationary weapons of mass destruction spread all across the country.”
Unfortunately, three years after the West, Texas, ammonium nitrate explosion, after you spoke at a memorial service for the 15 deceased individuals, and after you issued an executive order demanding action, your EPA has released a proposed rule that does too little to require a shift to safer technologies.
That is outrageous, given the risk of more catastrophes by negligent accident, natural disaster, sabotage, or terrorism. Since the West, Texas tragedy, which federal investigators recently determined was deliberately set, there have been more than 430 chemical incidents and 82 deaths. The EPA has identified 466 U.S. chemical facilities that each put 100,000 or more people at risk.
In 2005, the Homeland Security Council estimated that a major attack on just one of these chemical facilities would kill 17,500 people and injure tens of thousands more. Many of the first victims would be plant workers and people in the low-income communities that often are located near these dangerous plants.
Numerous experts are urging the EPA to issue a rule that focuses on safer technologies, often called materials substitution. They include your former EPA head Lisa Jackson; President Bush’s EPA head, Governor Christine Todd Whitman; retired generals like Russel Honoré and Randy Manner; the U.S. Chemical Safety Board; and a broad coalition of environmental, community, and labor groups.
You know who the opposition is: avaricious corporate interests like the Koch brothers. They don’t want to pay to shift to safer materials and technologies, even though other companies like Clorox, which eliminated the use of chlorine gas in favor of a safer process for making bleach, have already made the switch and are thriving.
How would our country view a weak EPA rule if one day there was a chemical catastrophe that killed thousands of Americans? More than twenty thousand people died as the result of the 1984 gas leak at a plant in Bhopal, India, in addition to many serious disabling illnesses. A U.S. company, Union Carbide, owned the plant.
If the plant was in the United States, and 20,000 Americans died, would not our country already have responded to this problem? We can’t wait for such a tragedy to explode before we take action.
Communities where the most dangerous plants are located – from Newark to Detroit, Mississippi to California – cannot wait any longer. For the facilities that have converted, the result is reliable protection for employees and communities against catastrophic disasters, and at low cost. Wherever this can be done, it should be a requirement.
The proposed EPA rule does take an important first step by mandating that certain high-risk chemical plants conduct a safer technology and alternatives analysis (STAA) and feasibility assessment on the use of inherently safer technologies. Perhaps that is one reason why Republican congressman Mike Pompeo of Kansas, in whose district Koch Industries is located and who has taken extensive campaign contributions from company officials, is pushing legislation to prohibit the EPA from issuing any rule at all.
But the Administration should not simply resist this industry-backed amendment; it should dramatically improve the rule by:
- Requiring all so-called “Risk Management Plan facilities” — those that use extremely hazardous substances and thus are required to develop a Risk Management Plan (RMP) — to assess safer alternatives to existing chemical processes. The inadequate proposed EPA rule exempts 87 percent of the some 12,500 Risk Management Plan chemical facilities from requirements to conduct a safer technology and alternatives analysis. The exempted facilities include, for example, water treatment plants, some of which put major cities at risk of a catastrophic release of chlorine gas.
- Require all these especially hazardous RMP facilities to send their safer alternatives analyses (STAA) to the EPA and readily share the information with nearby communities and other interested parties, such as emergency responders, vendors of safer technologies, facility employees and contractors, and safety researchers.
- Establish a publicly accessible clearinghouse of safer available alternatives that could encourage and support the adoption of safer alternatives by more facilities as soon as practicable.
- Starting with the highest risk facilities, require chemical facilities to actually substitute safer alternatives to their industrial processes, wherever feasible, that will eliminate or significantly reduce the consequences of a catastrophic release. The coalition of community, worker and environmental groups that has engaged the EPA on these issues has recommended that EPA at the very least begin a pilot program to require inherently safer technologies to be implemented in a subset of RMP facility categories, such as waste water and drinking water treatment plants, bleach plants and hydrogen fluoride refineries, and for those facilities among the 2,000 high-risk facilities cited in the EPA’s National Enforcement Initiative proposal.
The people must demand your EPA issue a stronger rule that moves industry to proven safer technologies and protects the public in every endangered community.
P.S. For a map of RMP facilities across the country, concerned citizens may visit https://preventchemicaldisasters.org/facility-maps/.
Citizens interested in contacting the EPA may do so by calling (202) 272-0167 or writing to:
Environmental Protection Agency
1200 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.
Washington, DC 20460