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John Deans

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America's Chemical Plants Are Ticking Time Bombs (PHOTOS)

Posted: 08/08/2012 4:15 pm

Despite a decade of security measures in our airports, monuments, and cities, tens of millions of Americans in major metropolitan areas are at risk of deadly exposure to toxic chemicals. Thousands of chemical facilities are vulnerable to accidents or acts of terrorism, and almost 500 of these facilities are located in or near America's most populous cities.

The danger is real and widespread; from coast to coast, major cities are host to chemical plants that process chlorine, hydrofluoric acid, phosgene, and other deadly toxins. The nation's most dangerous plant, located just outside New York City, puts 12 million people at risk of exposure; in Los Angeles, almost 5 million would be in the path of a toxic release. All told, these chemical facilities put over 100 million Americans directly in harm's way.

Who would be affected by a disaster at a chemical facility? Plant employees and communities living closest to the fence line of a plant will be the first to be hurt in a disaster. These communities are most often low-income communities of color with the least access to medical care. They also have the least political and economic power to force changes at these plants. But the threat posed by these plants crosses all societal boundaries; the 14-to-25-mile-radius risk zones reported by these plants to the EPA should put all segments of society on notice that they are also in harm's way.

The danger is well-known, too. In the wake of the September 11 attacks, the Bush administration and Congress investigated the need to secure chemical facilities, and the Bush administration's own Environmental Protection Agency strongly advocated for better security at the nation's chemical plants. However, Republicans (and a few Democrats) in Congress have delayed safety measures for over a decade. In that time the danger has not lessened at all.

Fortunately, alternatives exist. Technologies that are cheap and readily available can replace the dangerous chemicals used by these facilities, and some companies, like Clorox, are already doing the right thing. And widespread change might be coming; right now, the Obama administration and the Environmental Protection Agency are considering updating the Clean Air Act to safeguard America's chemical facilities in order to ensure the safety of people who live near them. For millions of families, those safeguards can't come a moment too soon.

PHOTOS: 10 of the Most Dangerous Chemical Plants in the U.S.: Is Your City at Risk?

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  • New York, N.Y.

    The densest and most populous city in America, New York and its residents would also be directly in harm's way in the event of a chemical disaster at the <a href="http://usactions.greenpeace.org/chemicals/map/?action=show_plant&chemicalplant_id=141" target="_hplink">Kuehne chemical facility</a> in South Kearney, N.J. The Kuehne plant uses toxic chlorine in its processing; chlorine can cause lung damage and pulmonary edema, which can be fatal. Twelve million residents in both New York and New Jersey are downwind of the facility, making this chemical plant the most dangerous in the United States. Unfortunately, the dangers at Kuehne have been noted since 9/11; however, although the operators recently announced plans to convert, they have not made public any details or expected date of completion. <em>(Photo by <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/nicksifu" target="_hplink">Nick Sifuentes</a>)</em>

  • Philadelphia, Pa.

    Philadelphia, home to 5.3 million people, has at least 10 chemical facilities that endanger the city's residents. <a href="http://usactions.greenpeace.org/chemicals/map/?action=show_plant&chemicalplant_id=362" target="_hplink">ConocoPhillips's Trainer Refinery</a> puts 2.4 million people at risk due to the bulk use and storage of hydrofluoric acid (HF), used in making gasoline. An accident involving this chemical could potentially affect an area up to 19 miles downwind of the plant. Breathing HF vapor causes extreme respiratory irritation (with cough, fever, chills, and tightness) that may be fatal. However, safer alternatives exist; rather than using gas, the plant should convert to safer solid acid catalysts. <em>(Photo by <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/fordan" target="_hplink">Bob Snyder</a>)</em>

  • Houston, Texas

    Texas has the largest number of chemical facilities in the U.S. that pose a threat to populations over 100,000, and Houston is ground zero, with five major chemical plants in or near the city's borders. <a href="http://usactions.greenpeace.org/chemicals/map/?action=show_plant&chemicalplant_id=208" target="_hplink">KIK Inc.</a> in Houston puts 2.13 million people at risk due to the bulk use and storage of chlorine, which is used to produce liquid bleach. An accident involving this chemical could potentially affect an area up to 14 miles downwind of the plant. However, safer alternatives are available, including making bleach on-site from salt and electricity, without the need to ship or store huge quantities of chlorine gas. <em>(Photo by <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/telwink/" target="_hplink">Ben Giannantonio</a>)</em>

  • Dallas, Texas

    The Dallas <a href="http://usactions.greenpeace.org/chemicals/map/?action=show_plant&chemicalplant_id=157" target="_hplink">Central Regional Wastewater System</a>, which uses sulfur dioxide and chlorine gas to treat wastewater, puts 1.6 million people at risk, due to the bulk use and storage of those chemicals. An accident involving this plant could potentially affect an area up to 25 miles downwind of the plant, which would include large parts of suburban and downtown Dallas. To make matters worse, there are several other similar water treatment facilities in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. However, safer alternatives are available, including ultraviolet light or the use of sodium bisulfite in place of toxic sulfur dioxide and liquid bleach in place of chlorine gas. <em>(Photo by <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/roberthensley" target="_hplink">Robert Hensley</a>)</em>

  • Los Angeles, Calif.

    The sprawling metropolis that is Los Angeles is home to more than 10 major chemical facilities spread across the greater metropolitan area, including several near the downtown core, which is a major nexus of transportation routes for goods in and out of southern California. The most dangerous of these is <a href="http://usactions.greenpeace.org/chemicals/map/?action=show_plant&chemicalplant_id=187" target="_hplink">KIK SoCal</a>, which produces liquid bleach using chlorine gas. A single high exposure can cause lung damage and, in severe cases, death, and 4.9 million people are potentially in harm's way because of this plant alone. Fortunately, this plant can shift to safer creation of bleach with salt and electricity, limiting or eliminating its reliance on chlorine. <em>(Photo by <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/dreichert" target="_hplink">Dave Reichert</a>)</em>

  • Chicago, Ill.

    Ten major chemical plants surround America's third largest city. CITGO Petroleum's <a href="http://usactions.greenpeace.org/chemicals/map/?action=show_plant&chemicalplant_id=350" target="_hplink">PDV Midwest refinery</a> in Lemont, Ill., endangers 3.1 million people due to the bulk use and storage of hydrofluoric acid (HF) in the refinement of gasoline. An accident involving this chemical could potentially affect an area up to 22 miles downwind of the plant, leaving those who breathe HF vapor at risk of extreme respiratory irritation (with cough, fever, chills, and chest tightness) that may be fatal. However, much like in Philadelphia's refineries, safer alternatives exist, including solid acid catalysts. <em>(Photo by <a href="http://www.cabentley.com/" target="_hplink">Chris Bentley</a>)</em>

  • Detroit, Mich.

    Chemical facilities still maintain a strong presence in the Motor City, as Detroit is home to four major chemical plants. The most dangerous of these is the <a href="http://usactions.greenpeace.org/chemicals/map/?action=show_plant&chemicalplant_id=444" target="_hplink">Detroit Wastewater Treatment Plant</a>, which uses sulfur dioxide and chlorine to treat wastewater. Sulfur dioxide and chlorine can cause severe burns, blindness, permanent damage to skin and lungs, pulmonary edema, and death. Located only 5 miles from the city center, this plant puts well over 2 million residents in danger; unfortunately, many of those at risk are also least likely to be able to afford emergency medical treatment, as 60 percent of households earn less than $50,000 a year, and over 20 percent earn less than $15,000 annually. Many wastewater facilities, including Detroit's, can be converted to safer water treatment methods, including the use of ultraviolet light and bleach to purify water. (Demographic data: U.S. Census Bureau, Census 2010 data, compiled and formatted by ESRI.com Business Analyst, July 30, 2012) <em>(Photo by <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/steveburt1947" target="_hplink">Steve Burt</a>)</em>

  • Miami, Fla.

    This vacation hotspot is also the site of four major chemical facilities, the worst of which is the <a href="http://usactions.greenpeace.org/chemicals/map/?action=show_plant&chemicalplant_id=129" target="_hplink">Allied Universal Corporation's chemical facility</a>, which uses chlorine to produce bleach. That facility, along with two others, are dangerously close to Miami International Airport, putting both residents and airline passengers -- as many as 2.1 million people -- at risk. Exposure to chlorine can cause lung damage and pulmonary edema, which can be fatal. As is the case with other facilities that produce bleach, Allied Universal can switch to using salt and electricity to produce bleach. <em>(Photo by <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/urbancityarch/" target="_hplink">Adam Mizrahi</a>)</em>

  • Tampa, Fla.

    Much like Detroit, the City of Tampa's <a href="http://usactions.greenpeace.org/chemicals/map/?action=show_plant&chemicalplant_id=443" target="_hplink">Howard F. Curren advanced water treatment plant</a> is the city's most dangerous chemical facility. Located close to the city center, the treatment facility uses sulfur dioxide and chlorine to treat wastewater, putting over 1 million people at risk of toxic exposure. This facility is an excellent candidate to convert to ultraviolet and bleach in order to treat wastewater; instead, the toxic chemicals it uses threaten Tampa families with severe burns, blindness, permanent damage to skin and lungs, pulmonary edema, and death in the event of an accident. <em>(Photo by <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/nebulant" target="_hplink">Patrick B. Breen</a>)</em>

  • Pittsburgh, Pa.

    The <a href="http://usactions.greenpeace.org/chemicals/map/?action=show_plant&chemicalplant_id=119" target="_hplink">Univar plant</a> in Bunola, Pa. is the primary threat to Pittsburgh's residents. This plant produces and processes chlorine to make bleach, and in the event of an accident or attack, it would put over 600,000 people in harm's way. Chlorine exposure can cause permanent damage to eyes and skin, bronchitis, pulmonary edema, and death. Univar can phase out the distribution of chlorine gas by switching production methods to salt and electricity, allowing the plant to avoid storing or shipping chlorine. <em>(Photo by <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/35637126@N02/" target="_hplink">J. Strakey</a>)</em>

  • BONUS: New York, N.Y.

    The dangers to the New York City metropolitan area don't stop with the Kuehne plant. The <a href="http://usactions.greenpeace.org/chemicals/map/?action=show_plant&chemicalplant_id=165" target="_hplink">Infineum Bayway Chemical Plant</a> in Linden, N.J. would put 4 million people in harm's way in the event of an accident or sabotage. Infineum stores bulk quantities of chlorine gas in order to produce additives for engine oils and transmission fluids. An incident involving chlorine could potentially affect an area up to 14 miles downwind of the plant, encompassing many New York and New Jersey residents. However, safer alternatives are available, including generating chlorine as needed without bulk storage. <em>(Photo by <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/bikoy/" target="_hplink">Victor Villanueva</a>)</em>

Note: All data was taken from Greenpeace's chemical locator map and is based on hand-written notes taken from reports issued to the Environmental Protection Agency by owners and operators of facilities through the Risk Management Program. Inaccuracies may occur from human error or may be out of date, as these reports are updated sporadically by companies either every five years or when a process change occurs at a facility. All data is current as of October 2011.

 
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