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Safety

EPA Urged To Act On Plant Safety

Clean Air Act: Ex-chief says agency should use law to reduce hazards at chemical facilities

by Glenn Hess
June 18, 2012 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 90, ISSUE 25

Whitman
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Credit: Mel Evans/AP
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Credit: Mel Evans/AP

Former EPA administrator Christine Todd Whitman is urging the agency to use the Clean Air Act to require chemical facilities to adopt safer processes and use less hazardous substances to prevent the “potentially devastating” consequences of a terrorist attack or an accidental release.

“This is an issue I find enormously frustrating and very troubling,’’ Whitman said last week in a teleconference that included representatives of environmental, labor, and other activist organizations.

Whitman, who led EPA from 2001 to 2003 under President George W. Bush, joined the groups in calling for the agency to use its authority under the Clean Air Act to reduce or eliminate catastrophic risks at chemical plants.

The statute’s general duty clause obligates companies to take steps “as are necessary to prevent releases, and to minimize the consequences of accidental releases which do occur.”

EPA’s environmental justice advisory council recommended earlier this year that the agency use that authority to address the risks posed by the hundreds of chemical facilities that are located in densely populated areas.

“People’s lives are at stake, and it doesn’t have to be a grand al-Qaeda plot,” Whitman said. “We’ve already seen in the last few years we have homegrown nutcases that can do these kinds of things, and these facilities are enormously vulnerable.”

Whitman recalled that in the months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, she seriously considered using the Clean Air Act to require hazard reduction at chemical facilities. Ultimately, she decided that pursuing legislation in Congress “was the best way to move forward” to avoid legal challenges.

But facing strong industry opposition, the Bush White House refused to support such legislation. “The chemical industry was just too strong,” Whitman said.

“Defending the communities in which we operate from potential terrorist threats is a top priority of U.S. chemical manufacturers,” says the American Chemistry Council (ACC), an industry trade association.

The group argues that federal programs are already in place to control risks at chemical plants, such as the Department of Homeland Security’s Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards. Duplicative and unnecessary regulations would have a severe economic impact on the industry, ACC adds.

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