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Across the country, some 14,000 chemical plants, manufacturers, water utilities and other facilities store and use extremely hazardous substances that can injure or kill employees or residents in nearby communities if suddenly released. Approximately 450 of these facilities each put more than 100,000 people in harm’s way.
The Department of Homeland Security and numerous security experts have warned that terrorists could turn hazardous chemical facilities into improvised weapons of mass destruction. Some of these facilities have replaced acutely hazardous chemicals with safer, readily available alternatives — making themselves less appealing terrorist targets, while also removing the ever-present danger of a serious accident. At these facilities, no failure in safety or security can send a catastrophic gas cloud into a nearby community.
The Center for American Progress, with assistance from the National Association of State PIRGs and National Environmental Trust, conducted a survey to identify such facilities and spotlight successful practices that have removed unnecessary chemical dangers from our communities. This survey (which covered facilities that no longer report using extremely hazardous substances under the federal Risk Management Planning program) found that facilities across the country, representing a range of industries, have switched to safer alternatives from a variety of hazardous chemicals, producing dramatic security and safety benefits at a reasonable cost.
Key findings from the survey include the following:
Despite this progress, thousands of facilities that could switch to safer alternatives still have not done so. For example, several thousand water treatment plants, many situated in cities and towns, still use chlorine gas. Removing such hazards should be a national strategic priority. Unfortunately, more than four years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the White House and Congress have failed to act. Currently, no federal law or regulation requires hazardous chemical facilities to review or use readily available alternatives.
The facilities identified by the survey show that dramatic improvements are feasible if safety and security are given priority. For example:
In some cases, facilities may be unable to identify a viable alternative to reduce chemical hazards, but may be able to improve safety and security by consolidating operations or relocating to a less populated area. For example, the Niklor Chemical Company moved from Carson, Calif., to a remote location near Mojave, removing a chlorine-gas danger from an area of 3.5 million residents.
Adopting safer alternatives, however, is the only certain way to prevent a catastrophic chemical release. Many chemical facilities have already taken this step, thereby protecting millions of Americans. Millions more could be taken out of harm’s way with a concerted national effort to convert other high-risk facilities to safer chemicals and processes.