09/09/2010 03:54 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

America Can't Wait for Chemical Disaster Prevention

Nearly nine years have passed since the tragedy of 9/11. Although it was the farthest thing from my mind at the time, the terrorist attacks would mark the beginning of my political education as a 9/11 widow. It is an education I did not and would not choose for myself.

I was reminded of this recently when on August 2nd, two men were convicted of conspiring to blow up jet-fuel tanks at JFK Airport in New York. Authorities said this plan was intended to "dwarf" the attacks of September 11th 2001. As much as that horrifies me, I am more frightened that the U.S. has yet to address some of the country's largest vulnerabilities -- primarily any one of the hundreds of U.S. chemical plants that use and store tons of poison gases.

According to the worst-case scenario reports provided to the EPA, 484 U.S. chemical facilities each put at least 100,000 people at risk of a Bhopal-like disaster. As we learned from the BP oil spill disaster, worst-case scenarios do happen and sometimes they are far worse than what we could have ever imagined possible. Such is the case when we ponder the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory's own estimates of an attack on a chemical facility:100,000 people could be killed or injured in the first 30 minutes.

When congressional Republicans were worried about losing control of Congress in 2006, they slapped a temporary 700-word bill, or "rider," on the Homeland Security funding bill and called it "chemical security." That temporary law contains loopholes that actually prohibit the government from preventing disasters through the use of safer, more secure chemicals or processes. It also has security gaps that exempt 2,400 water treatment plants and 500 chemical port facilities from using processes that would increase public safety.

Over the last decade, more than 287 examples of safer chemical processes have proven effective at eliminating these catastrophic risks for 38 million Americans. However, if conversions to safer technology continue at the current rate, it will take several decades before all high-risk plants become safer. Legislation prioritizing these conversions is essential to neutralizing them as terrorist targets. It also creates thousands of new, more secure jobs. Additionally, more than 85 percent of surveyed facilities reported their conversion costs to be $1 million or less, and one third said they expect to save money.

The House of Representatives adopted a bill last November that would close the loopholes and security gaps in the current law and ensure that the highest risk plants use safer, cost-effective alternatives. This bill has widespread support, ranging from organized labor to first responders, health professionals and even railroad workers who no longer wish to transport these unsafe chemicals.

Despite these facts, on July 28th the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee led by Senator Susan Collins of Maine adopted a bill that would simply extend the current temporary law with its loopholes and security gaps for three more years. America can't afford to wait until 2013 for chemical disaster prevention.

The release of a poison gas (such as chlorine) at just one of these plants can endanger people up to 25 miles down wind. At high concentrations it would literally melt the lungs of victims. Poison gases at these plants also put thousands of area firefighters and first responders at risk.

There is still time for Congress to act this year. Senator Barbara Boxer's (D-CA) Environment and Public Works Committee is expected to take up this legislation in September. For the first time since 9/11, the Department of Homeland Security, the EPA, the White House and congressional leadership all agree on the need to require disaster prevention and eliminate major security gaps in the current law -- but they must stop their hollow talk and actually DO something about it.

So while many across the country continue to speak out about their outrage, their hurt feelings, their constitutional right, and the wisdom (or lack thereof) in building a mosque near Ground Zero, perhaps we should all be more focused on an issue that actually saves lives by protecting millions of Americans who remain at risk from chemical disasters.

Kristen Breitweiser, 9/11 widow and activist, is known for pressuring officials in Washington to provide the American people with a public account of what went wrong on September 11th and in the months preceding the disaster that claimed the life of her husband and more than 3,000 others.

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