The chemical blast that occurred this week at the Cortec facility in Spooner is an unfortunate reminder that facilities across Wisconsin and across the country use toxic chemicals every day that risk injuring, and potentially even killing, workers and surrounding community members.
It's not the first such accident in Wisconsin. In 1996 a train derailment in Weyauwega spilled 9,000 gallons of sodium hydroxide; the town was evacuated for 17 days. And what's more, the potential for future accidents is great. In Wisconsin, there are 59 facilities that endanger more than 10,000 people in the event of an accident, and 175 that endanger more than 1,000 people.
The good news is that safer substitutes for many dangerous chemicals used at chemical facilities are readily available. The bad news is that the chemical and oil industries resist attempts by Congress to protect workers and communities from avoidable chemical threats.
Nationally, there are more than 14,000 chemical facilities. According to government figures, 100 of these facilities each put more than 1 million people at risk of death or serious injury. Another 445 facilities each endanger 100,000 or more.
The incidents cited above were accidents, but security experts have consistently identified chemical facilities as attractive and vulnerable terrorist targets. Stephen Flynn, a former homeland security adviser for the U.S. Commission on National Security, described chemical facilities as "the equivalent of weapons of mass destruction prepositioned in some of the most congested parts of our country."
Regrettably, many companies have chosen to disregard available and cost-effective safer technologies. For example, one-third of the nation's oil refineries still use hydrofluoric acid, a highly toxic gas that burns the lungs and causes suffocation from fluid buildup. All other refineries use safer technologies such as sulfuric acid or solid action catalysts. By not adopting available safer technology alternatives, the recalcitrant refineries needlessly endanger 17 million people.
The magnitude of the chemical plant threat calls for a bold national policy. First, where safer technologies exist and can be feasibly incorporated, chemical facilities should adopt them.
Second, employees must be allowed to participate in the development of safety and security measures, not only because they are on the front lines of exposure, but because they possess a more intimate understanding of the facilities where they work and how to make them safer.
In 2006 the House Homeland Security Committee approved a strong bipartisan bill that included safer technologies, worker participation, and other constructive provisions. The chemical industry vigorously opposed the bill, and Congress eventually capitulated to the industry's objections by abandoning the comprehensive legislation in favor of a limited and temporary program.
The weak program Congress adopted was devised by the chemical industry. As written, the program actually prohibits the government from requiring that specific security measures be implemented. It may also eliminate more protective state and local chemical security and safety laws.
We deserve better than a hollow program that delivers chemical security in name only. It's time for Congress to stand up for worker and public health protections, rather than standing up for the chemical industry.
Fortunately, the House Homeland Security Committee recently introduced H.R. 5577 to replace this limited temporary program with a comprehensive chemical security program.
To provide meaningful reform, Congress must pass legislation that replaces dangerous chemical operations with feasible safer technologies and that integrates employee participation in safety and security initiatives. If Congress continues to succumb to a corrosive chemical industry, it will be at the expense of worker and community safety.
Bruce Speight is an advocate with WISPIRG, the Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group, a statewide nonpartisan, nonprofit public interest advocacy organization.
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