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Why Improving Chemical Facility Safety and Security Must Be a National Priority

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(Article changed on January 26, 2014 at 10:37)

On August 1, 2013, President Obama signed Executive Order 13650: Improving Chemical Facility Safety and Security. The Executive Order directs the Federal Government to improve operational coordination with state and local partners; improve Federal agency coordination and information sharing; modernize policies, regulations, and standards; and work with stakeholders to identify best practices.  The Executive Order Federal Working Group includes representatives from: U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS); U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA); U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ); U.S. Department of Labor (DOL); U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT); and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Under the Executive Order 13650 a series of listening sessions are held around the country allowing an opportunity for the public to provide comments and input on the Executive Order. A Listening Session in Houston was held January 24, 2014, 9:00 am -- 4:30 pm, Harris County Department of Education's Training and Conference Center, Room 502, 6300 Irvington Blvd., Houston, TX 77022.

The worst man-made catastrophe in the world took place in Bhopal, India on December 2, 1984. On that day, an explosion at a chemical facility released toxic methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas, killing over 20,000 men, women and children and injuring a half-million people. The death toll will never be precisely known; many of the victims were poor villagers living near the plant who were not counted. Even now the echoes of that disaster are still present: many survivors were permanently injured and mothers gave birth to babies with birth defects and health issues caused by exposure to the chemical plant's toxins.

It is easy to imagine that a disaster like Bhopal's could never happen in the United States. We're a "developed" country, we would reason, with a government that protects its citizens from harm. Right?

Wrong. Thanks to industry pressure, Congressional gridlock and lack of oversight, we are still at risk of our own Bhopal, and much like that Indian city on December 2, 1984, the communities at risk here are often poor communities of color. This is clearly a national environmental justice issue and must be given top priority. Around the nation, almost 500 chemical facilities each put 100,000 or more people directly in harm's way.

Here in Texas we have more of these facilities than in any other state. Our big cities like Houston and Dallas are particularly riddled with dangerous chemical facilities. The Houston Ship Channel is lined with chemical facilities like Koch Industries-owned Invista Intermediates, DuPont's LaPorte Plant, Pasadena Refinery, and KIK (Houston) Inc., which, in combination, put 600,000 to over 2 million people at risk of a disaster. The ship channel is home to predominantly lower-income Latino and African American families. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, within a mile of the Arkema, Inc. Houston plant the population is 83.1% Hispanic, with 54% of households earning less than $35,000 per year, and 22% less than $15,000 per year. This facility in total puts two million people at risk of a cloud of toxic hydrogen sulfide that could spread up to 16 miles. In other words, the people who are most at risk are those who are least likely to have either a voice in the political process or access to healthcare. 

This story is repeated around the country in major cities and small communities alike. Communities of color who are already living with increased exposure to pollution from chemical facilities are often disproportionately at risk of chemical disasters. When a chemical disaster happens, these are the communities and sacrifice-zones that will bear the greatest costs in life and health. That fact makes this one of the biggest environmental justice issues of our time.

Think that a disaster won't happen? In August 2012, the Chevron Richmond Refinery in Richmond, California suffered a fire that sent upwards of 15,000 residents to local hospitals complaining of respiratory problems. If the fire had spread to the tanks of anhydrous ammonia at the plant, it could have spelled catastrophe, including potentially fatal exposures, for the 160,000 people who live within the five-mile dispersion zone surrounding the facility.

This February 11 will mark the twentieth anniversary of the Environmental Justice Executive Order 12898, "Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations." The Obama Administration promised to advance environmental justice, and making vulnerable communities safer from chemical plant disasters is the least they can do to make good on that promise. The President and EPA should use Executive Order 13650 and the authority they have under the Clean Air Act to require high-risk facilities to switch, whenever possible, to safer chemicals and processes that can be effective in protecting workers and communities. The Obama Administration should move swiftly to fully implement the Clean Air Act and reduce the potential for chemical disasters.

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Robert D. Bullard is Distinguished Professor of Urban Planning and Environmental Policy in the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University in Houston. His most recent book is entitled "The Wrong Complexion (more...)

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