In The Public Interest: Preventing the Unthinkable

05/25/2011 02:50 pm ET

On December 3, 1984, people in Bhopal, India, woke up to fits of coughing as their lungs filled with fluid. More than 40 tons of methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas had created a dense cloud over a population of more than half a million people following a chemical gas spill from a pesticide factory.

Over 8,000 died in just the first three days following the spill, mainly from cardiac and respiratory arrest. In total, 20,000 people lost their lives. The survivors are still struggling with the aftermath.

Twenty five years later and half a world away, could the same thing happen in the United States?

And if so, can we prevent it?

It seems unthinkable but the unthinkable already almost happened, just last year.

In August, 2008, an explosion at the Bayer chemical facility in Institute, West Virginia killed two employees. That facility had a 37,000 pound tank of methyl isocyanate located just 80 feet from the blast. Had the blast been closer, the accident could have "eclipsed the 1984 [Bhopal] disaster in India," according to an investigation by a Congressional Committee.

The Bayer plant in Institute is the only remaining U.S. facility that still uses and stores bulk quantities of methyl isocyanate. But there are plenty of other dangerous chemicals being stored near the homes of millions of Americans.

One hundred ten million (110,000,000) Americans live in the shadow of potential catastrophic poison gas releases from one of 300 chemical facilities, vulnerable to accidents or worse. And as we saw with the September 11 attacks, conventional fence-line security cannot prevent a successful attack and its devastating consequences. Such an attack or accident would result in more casualties than the September 11 attacks or the 1984 Bhopal disaster.

Across the U.S., thousands of chemical facilities use and store large quantities of high hazard chemicals - chlorine or sulfur dioxide gas, hydrofluoric acid, and anhydrous ammonia are the most common and the most dangerous -- putting thousands of people in the surrounding communities at risk in the event of a release.

That's the bad news.

The good news is that safer, more secure chemical processes already exist that can replace virtually all of these hazards. Many facilities -- from drinking water treatment plants to oil refineries -- are already using safer chemicals or processes, proving that we don't have to put communities at unnecessary risk.

The really great news is that last November, the House of Representatives brought us closer to protecting the millions of Americans who live and work in the danger zones around these facilities.

By a vote of 230-193, the House passed the Chemical and Water Security Act of 2009 (H.R. 2868), which will require thousands of facilities where a toxic release would endanger the surrounding community to assess their ability to "reduce the consequences of a terrorist attack" by switching to safer alternative chemicals or processes.

Thanks to the leadership of bill sponsors Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), the House rejected efforts to gut the bill's requirement that the most dangerous facilities actually implement safer technologies.

The House bill has the support of a growing coalition of labor, community, public health, first responder and environmental groups (PDF) who all recognize that the most commonsense way to prevent catastrophic consequences of an attack or accident is to use and store less hazardous chemicals in the first place.

To protect American communities, we have to keep the momentum going all the way to the President's desk.

We should not continue to put to millions of Americans at unnecessary risk when we know that we can do better. And we should not tolerate further delay in passing this already long overdue protection for America's communities.

Elizabeth Hitchcock is a Public Health Advocate with U.S. PIRG.