Chemical Security: Protecting Syrians, But Leaving Americans Exposed

Aerial view of destruction of West, Texas, chemical plant after 2013 explosion

This is a guest op-ed by Russel Honoré, Randy Manner, and David Halperin

In the torrent of Trump administration actions to void Obama-era regulations, one such move stands out right now as particularly disturbing.

For decades, our country has failed to squarely address the dangers of hazardous chemical facilities — from oil refineries to water treatment plants. An accident, natural disaster, or deliberate attack could trigger an explosion or chemical release that could kill thousands of people. Millions of our citizens live and work near these dangerous facilities.

After three years of intensive discussions with chemical companies, plant workers, affected communities, first responders, and others, the Environmental Protection Agency on January 13 issued a rule to help protect the American people from these dangers. The rule strengthens the federal Risk Management Program (RMP), which addresses some 12,500 facilities that use or store large quantities of highly toxic or highly flammable chemicals.

The rule is urgently needed.  Yet last month Trump’s new EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, acting on a petition from the chemical industry, stayed its effective date to June. Now chemical lobbyists are pushing for further delay, and Pruitt is proposing to block the rule until 2019, and meanwhile to reconsider whether to implement it at all.

The EPA should not stall further. The risks of delay are serious.

Let’s be clear about what’s at stake.

The world was outraged this month by a chemical attack in Syria that led to terrible suffering and death. It was so disturbing that our president reversed policy and ordered an attack.

Yet across our own country, hazardous chemical facilities are, in effect, as Senator Barack Obama said in 2006, “stationary weapons of mass destruction” — capable, if triggered, of causing the same kinds of harm as chemical weapons.  

We know the risk because there have been major incidents, like the 2013 West, Texas, ammonium nitrate explosion, which may have been caused by sabotage. That tragedy killed 15 Americans and injured 160 more. It highlighted the failure by many in the chemical industry to minimize and safely secure toxic materials, and our government’s failure to create comprehensive and fair rules to protect against such incidents.

West, Texas, was not the only warning. From 2004 to 2013 there were some 1,500 chemical releases or explosions, causing 17,000 injuries and 58 deaths. There have been hundreds more incidents since then, with more casualties.

We know the dangers, also, from the 1984 pesticide plant disaster at Bhopal, India, which caused 20,000 deaths. The Bhopal plant was owned by a U.S. company, Union Carbide. If that plant had been located in the U.S. and 20,000 people had died here, we would have fixed this problem long ago.

We need to fix it now.

Terrorists could trigger a chemical plant attack in our country, with consequences like Bhopal, or worse. 9-11 hijacker Mohammed Atta, before he flew a jet into the World Trade Center, reportedly had been scouting U.S. chemical plant sites.

In 2003, the government’s National Infrastructure Protection Center warned that U.S. chemical plants could be terrorist targets. Security experts have warned of the relative ease with which determined attackers could thwart plant security. The potential for cyber attacks makes the challenge even more serious.

The EPA has identified 466 chemical facilities that each put 100,000 or more people at risk of a poison gas disaster. In 2004, the Homeland Security Council projected that a major attack would kill 17,500 people and injure tens of thousands.

This is a national security issue. The administration must treat it like one, with the kind of urgency we give to weapons of mass destruction overseas.  

We acted in Syria, the administration said, to deter Bashar al-Assad from further chemical attacks on the Syrian people.  Surely the American people also are deserving of protection from chemical dangers.

Chemical industry lobbying already has kept important protections out of the RMP rule. In particular, community, labor, and environmental groups had strongly urged that plants be required to move to safer technologies where feasible, as some responsible companies, such as Clorox, already have done voluntarily.

But the final RMP rule does provide for some critical, common-sense reforms: enhancing emergency preparedness; improving investigations of near-miss incidents; increasing public access to chemical hazard information; and, for three industries with the most serious accident records — refineries, chemical manufacturers, and pulp and paper mills — requiring safer technology analyses.

These provisions to improve chemical security are urgently needed to protect the American people. No responsible administration could delay them another minute, let alone two more years.

Lieutenant General Russel L. Honoré, US Army (Ret) is the former commander of Joint Task Force Katrina, and founder of the GreenARMY. Major General Randy Manner, US Army (Ret), is a former acting Director of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. David Halperin, a lawyer, is a former staff member of the National Security Council and Senate Intelligence Committee, and a blogger at Republic Report.

Image credit: Aerial photo of the site of the 2013 chemical plant explosion in West, TXBy Shane.torgerson, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons