Late last week, hundreds of organizations and people sent a letter to President Obama warning that his administration is running of time to act on an issue long-identified by the president as essential to our national security and public safety: protecting our people from the dangers of accidents or deliberate attacks at U.S. chemical plants.
I signed this letter, along with leaders including retired Army General Russel Honore, the commander of Task Force Katrina, and 9/11 widow Kristen Breitweiser, and organizations including the Environmental Justice Health Alliance, United Steelworkers, Sierra Club, and Greenpeace.
I have been involved in the effort to get our government to act on this issue for more than a decade, but the basic problem identified in an op-ed I co-authored in The New York Times 11 years ago has not changed. There was then -- and there is now -- a real risk of another terrible chemical catastrophe, like India's massive Bhopal tragedy. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, it seemed clearer than ever that such a chemical disaster could be triggered not only by accident but also by terrorists. As President Bush's director of the Environmental Protection Agency, Christine Todd Whitman, recognized then, the public would be better protected if industrial facilities moved away from hazardous chemicals and toward safer alternatives where feasible.
Some companies, like Clorox, have taken responsibility and embraced these changes. But others, like Koch Industries, have lobbied heavily in Washington to prevent common-sense reforms. As a result, Americans remain at serious risk.
As a senator, Barack Obama was a leading advocate of changes to prevent chemical disasters; he called these facilities "stationary weapons of mass destruction spread all across the country." After an April 2013 ammonium nitrate explosion killed 15 people and injured 160 more in West, Texas, President Obama ordered new measures, and a group of federal agencies have been developing new rules. We don't know yet how strong these rules will be, but we do know now that the agencies have set a timetable that seems to be too slow to ensure progress. The next president may not share President Obama's concern with this serious national security issue, or his determination to take on special interests in order to get real reforms.
We hope the president will heed our call, and act promptly. Below is the text of the letter.
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500
March 19, 2015
Dear Mr. President:
We write to strongly urge you to take prompt and decisive action to address a danger you have highlighted for a decade - the threat to our communities and workers from accidents or deliberate attacks on U.S. chemical plants. Your Administration is running out of time to make a real difference on this critical issue.
We were grateful when, after the tragic West, Texas disaster in April 2013, you issued Executive Order (EO) 13650, "Improving Chemical Facility Safety and Security," that directed federal agencies to modernize safety regulations. As a result, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is considering revisions to its Risk Management Program (RMP) regulation, but has postponed proposing changes until September. We believe that this schedule will jeopardize finalizing a rule before you leave office and therefore needs to be accelerated.
Your past leadership on preventing chemical disasters has been unparalleled. The millions of men, woman and children living, studying, playing and working within high risk zones near hundreds of chemical facilities are counting on you to prevent future tragedies. To ensure that new rules do take effect, they must be finalized well in advance of the end of your administration's term in office.
EPA's RMP data, first reported in 1999, exposed the overwhelming danger of these hazards to workers, first responders, children, and surrounding communities. In 2006, as a U.S. Senator, you stated emphatically that "these plants are stationary weapons of mass destruction spread all across the country." According to a December 2014 Congressional Research Service analysis, 466 of these facilities each put 100,000 or more people at risk of a catastrophic disaster.
Fortunately, safer cost-effective chemical processes are widely available. Since 2001, hundreds of chemical facilities have switched to safer chemical processes and eliminated these risks to 40 million people in 47 states. For example, in 2012, the Clorox Company completed conversion of all of its U.S. facilities to a safer manufacturing process. While this is encouraging, reliance solely on voluntary efforts has left more than 100 million people in the U.S. at risk of death or injury because they live and work inside "vulnerability zones" surrounding the high-risk chemical facilities.
Section 112(r)(7)(A) of the Clean Air Act provides the EPA with rule-making authority to prevent future tragedies by requiring chemical facility owners and operators to use, where feasible, safer processes that will reduce or eliminate the potential for a catastrophic chemical incident. Safer processes are the only foolproof way to eliminate or dramatically reduce the loss of human life in such an event, whether it is triggered by an accident, natural disaster, or terrorism.
These catastrophic hazards became obvious following the 9/11 attacks and after every attack since. In 2002, the EPA under then-Administrator Christine Todd Whitman proposed using the Clean Air Act's disaster prevention authority to make chemical facilities "inherently safer by reducing quantities of hazardous chemicals handled or stored, substituting less hazardous chemicals for extremely hazardous ones, or otherwise modifying the design of processes to reduce or eliminate chemical hazards." Tragically, the Bush administration, under pressure from special interest lobbyists, scuttled this proposal.
In your 2008 book Change We Can Believe In you promised, "An Obama Administration will...[s]ecure our chemical plants by setting a clear set of federal regulations that all plants must follow, including improving barriers, containment, mitigation and safety training, and wherever possible, using safer technology, such as less toxic chemicals."
On April 3, 2012, Governor Whitman wrote EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson urging the use of "authorities you can apply to reduce these hazards before a tragedy of historic proportions occurs." And following the West, Texas, disaster, then-EPA Administrator Jackson told MSNBC, "We need to use the authority we have now."
Due to the billions of dollars of potential liability, the Association of American Railroads issued a statement in 2008 saying: "It's time for the big chemical companies to do their part to help protect America. They should stop manufacturing dangerous chemicals when safer substitutes are available..." More recently, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board recommended in its May 1, 2014 final report on the 2010 Tesoro refinery disaster that the EPA issue new rules under the Agency's Clean Air Act authority
We respectfully urge you to use your authority to expedite finalizing a rule that will eliminate these potentially catastrophic hazards wherever feasible. As organizations committed to this objective, we look to your office to ensure that this critical rule is finalized as soon as possible.
Thank you for your leadership on this important issue.
Advocates for Environmental Human Rights
Air Alliance Houston
Pamela K. Miller
Alaska Community Action on Toxics
Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments
American Friends Service Committee WV Economic Justice Project
Diane E. Brown
Arizona Public Interest Research Group
Asian Pacific Environmental Network
Athens County Fracking Action Network
Basel Action Network
Jeanne Rizzo, R.N.
Breast Cancer Fund
California Public Interest Research Group (CalPIRG)
Center for Community Change
Center for Effective Government
Center for Environmental Health
Lois Marie Gibbs
Center for Health, Environment & Justice
Center for International Environmental Law
Barbara Warren, RN, MS
Citizens' Environmental Coalition
Maria D. Cabrera
City Councilwoman, City of Wilmington, Delaware
Clean Air Coalition of Western New York
Clean Air Council
Kathleen A. Curtis, LPN
Clean and Healthy New York
Mark Rossi, PhD
Clean Production Action
Clean Water Action
Clean Water Action, New Jersey
Clean Water Action, Michigan
Clean Water Action, Maryland
Clean Water Action, Pennsylvania
Clean Water Action, Rhode Island
Clean Water Action, Connecticut
Clean Water Action, California
Clean Water Action, Colorado
Clean Water Action, Florida
Clean Water Action Alliance of Massachusetts
Clean Water Action Alliance of Minnesota
Colorado Public Interest Research Group (CoPIRG)
David Le Grande
Communications Workers of America
Concerned Citizens of Wagon Mound and Mora County
Connecticut Public Interest Research Group (ConnPIRG)
Amy Roe, Ph.D.
Delaware Chapter of the Sierra Club
Paulyne A Webster
Delaware Concerned Residents For Environmental Justice
Delaware Interfaith Power & Light
Beverly Wright, Ph.D.
Deep South Center for Environmental Justice
Diesel Health Project
Dr. Robert D. Bullard
Environmental Justice Leader
Trip Van Noppen
Richard A. Denison, Ph.D.
Environmental Defense Fund
Environmental Health Strategy Center/Prevent Harm
Environmental Justice Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform
Renee C. Sharp
Environmental Working Group
Farmworker Association of Florida
Former Staff Member, National Security Council & Senate Intelligence Committee
Gerald Poje, PhD
Founding Member, U.S. Chemical Safety Board
Friends of the Earth
GAIA: Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives
Global Community Monitor
Green For All
Arlene Blum, PhD
Green Science Policy Institute
Healthy Building Network
Henry S. Cole, Ph.D
Henry S. Cole Environmental Associates, Inc.
International Brotherhood of Teamsters
International Campaign for Responsible Technology
International Chemical Workers Union Council
Investor Environmental Health Network
José T. Bravo
Just Transition Alliance
Kanawha Forest Coalition
Kentucky Environmental Foundation
Dr. Theresa Cordova
Las Pistoleras Institute cultural de Arte
League of Conservation Voters
Learning Disabilities Association of Maine
LT. General Russel Honore, US Army (Ret)
Life Support Project
Los Jardines Institute
Louisiana Bucket Brigade
Major General Randy Manner, US Army (Ret)
Ken and Penny Dryden
Minority Workforce Development Coalition
Moms Clean Air Force
Mossville Environmental Action Now
National Council for Occupational Safety and Health
Natural Resources Defense Council
Rev. M. Dele
Carol E. Gay
New Jersey State Industrial Union Council
NJ Work Environment Council
Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance
Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition
Oregon State Public Interest Research Group (OSPIRG)
People Concerned About Chemical Safety
Pesticide Action Network North America
Physicians for Social Responsibility
Karen A D'Andrea
Physicians for Social Responsibility Maine Chapter
Physicians for Social Responsibility of Greater Kansas
Barbara H. Warren, MD, MPH
Physicians for Social Responsibility, Arizona
Peter Orris, MD, MPH
Professor and Chief of Service, Occupational and Environmental Medicine, University of Illinois Hospital and Health Sciences System
Laura Punnett, Sc.D.
Professor, Dept. of Work Environment, & UML Distinguished University Professor (2013-16), University of Massachusetts Lowell
Professor, University of Maryland Law School and President, Center for Progressive Reform
Public Citizen (Texas)
Amy Laura Cahn
Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia
REACT (Rubbertown Emergency ACTion)
Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families
Robert M. Gould, MD
San Francisco Bay Area Chapter, Physicians for Social Responsibility
Science and Environmental Health Network
Service Employees International Union
Neil Carman, PhD
Sierra Club's Lone Star Chapter
Southwest Workers Union
Story of Stuff Project
Texas Campaign for the Environment
Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (T.E.J.A.S.)
Texas Injured Workers
Anjum Hanafi, MPH
Texas Physicians for Social Responsibility
Sara E. Smith, JD
Texas Public Interest Research Group (TexPIRG)
The Praxis Project
Kristina Mazzocchi, Esq.
The Steelworkers' Tony Mazzocchi Center for Health, Safety and Environmental Education
U.S. Public Interest Research Group
Union of Concerned Scientists
Michael J. Wright
Elizabeth C. Yeampierre
Bruce Amundson, MD
Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility
WE ACT for Environmental Justice
Dr. Henry Clark
West County Toxics Coalition
West Virginia Citizen Action Group
Jeffrey S. Allen
West Virginia Council of Churches
West Virginia Environmental Council
Carey Jo Grace
West Virginia Healthy Kids And Families Coalition
Cynthia D. Ellis
West Virginia Highlands Conservancy
West Virginia Rivers Coalition
West Virginia Surface Owners' Rights Organization
West Virginia Sustainable Business Council
Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group (WISPIRG)
Senator Barbara Boxer
Senator Edward Markey
Senator Tom Udall
Senator Cory Booker
Representative Frank Pallone
Gina McCarthy, Administrator, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
This post also appears on Republic Report.