Even though it isn’t yet known what caused the deadly explosion last week at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, the facility was clearly too dangerous to be located a few blocks from a middle school, a nursing home and a 50-unit apartment building. The blast killed 14 people, injured some 200, and damaged or flattened dozens of homes.
The plant was storing about 270 tons of explosive ammonium nitrate, a substance sometimes used in bomb-making, as well as 54,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia, which is poisonous if inhaled and combustible when exposed to fire. Surely, a buffer should have existed between these materials and the little town of West.
Last week we were reminded both of the dangers posed by chemical plants and of the threat of terrorism in the U.S., and the conclusion that chemical plants could be a lot safer is unsettling. But such a conclusion is also inescapable.
Under federal rules passed in the 1980s and 1990s, chemical plants are obligated to inform nearby communities about the risks they pose; they also have to explain to the Environmental Protection Agency how they reduce the probability of catastrophe. The problem is that plants aren’t sufficiently compelled to eliminate that potential in the first place.
An effort to address this problem was undertaken after Sept. 11, 2001, when EPA chief Christine Todd Whitman asked the White House to sponsor legislation that would compel the use of inherently safer chemicals and practices at chemical plants.
The George W. Bush administration declined. Disappointingly, the Obama administration hasn’t taken up the cause, even though candidate Barack Obama promised to establish new regulations. Congress has likewise failed to pass legislation along the lines of Whitman’s approach.
What’s frustrating is that there are cost-effective ways to improve safety. Utilities have stopped using dangerous chlorine gas to sterilize water and started using ultraviolet light instead. Bleach makers have reduced their need to move huge quantities of chlorine gas by train by spreading production among smaller centers.
Although many of the bigger chemical companies have initiated these changes, hundreds of smaller ones, such as the West Fertilizer Co., require government urging.
Last July, a collection of environmental groups, labor unions and public-health advocates petitioned the EPA to use its authority to institute new rules that would drive companies to make a choice: use safer chemicals, use fewer dangerous ones or take measures to keep the public safe. In West, Texas, presumably, such rules could have led the fertilizer plant to improve fire safety, disperse its chemical stores, move some distance from the town or all of the above.
Nine months later, the EPA still hasn’t responded to the petition. EPA spokeswoman Alisha Johnson told Bloomberg News that chemical plant safety was a “high priority.” Putting in place some needed rules would be a good way to make those words real.
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