The federal government needs to tighten security around chemical plants and to force manufacturing facilities to replace the extremely hazardous substances they use with less dangerous alternatives, a wide-ranging coalition of officials and groups urged yesterday.
Former New Jersey Gov. Christine Whitman joined Greenpeace, labor, and other organizations in calling on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to take steps to prevent disasters around chemical facilities.
“This is an issue, for me, is enormously frustrating and troubling,’’ said Whitman, also a former administrator of the EPA, who tried to tighten federal regulations, but was blocked by the Bush administration. “Just imagine if terrorists targeted facilities. The consequences of something happening is just so devastating.’’
Since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, environmental groups have warned about the risks of a potential disaster at chemical facilities, which routinely handle very hazardous substances.
One in three Americans is at risk of a poison gas disaster by living near one of 483 facilities nationwide that pose a danger to more than 100,000 people, including 11 facilities in New Jersey, according to Greenpeace.
“This is still a sector very much in need of good action from the federal government,’’ said Bob Bostock, who was Whitman’s homeland security adviser and helped develop the 2002 EPA proposal. “Terrorists look for the easier targets, the low-hanging fruit.’’
Hal Bozarth, executive director of the Chemistry Industry Council of New Jersey, strongly disputed the view that chemical facilities are vulnerable targets. In the past 11 years, chemical facilities in the state have spent more than $1 billion to harden the locations from such attacks, Bozarth said.
“At the present time, every facility is either covered by federal law or state regulations put in place over the last 11 years,’’ he said.
Michael Wright, director of health, safety and environment for the United Steelworkers, disagreed. “I don’t know of any industry where the gap between industry safety programs and the potential for death and destruction is so much more than any other industrial workplace,’’ he said.
Whitman and others on the call argued the EPA has the authority to regulate these chemicals under the “general duty’’ clause of the federal Clean Air Act. The clause obligates chemical facilities handling the most dangerous chemicals to prevent potentially catastrophic releases to surrounding communities, according to an April letter Whitman sent to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson.
In the letter, Whitman argued facilities with the largest quantities of the most dangerous chemicals (such as poison gases) should asses their operations to identify safer cost-effective processes that will reduce or eliminate hazards in the event of a terrorist attack or accident.
“This has never been required and today hundreds of these facilities continue to put millions of Americans at risk,’’ the letter warned.
Whitman, a Republican, conceded the likelihood of any action being taken by Washington before the November election was “very slight,’’ especially given the hostile atmosphere in the House over EPA regulations.
“We can’t let politics trump policy,’’ she said when asked about prospects for tough new regulations. “The American people need to see this happen. There is a gaping hole in our security,’’ she said.
The National Environmental Justice Advisory Council is also backing an effort by the federal agency to take steps to reduce risks from chemical facilities, using its authority under the federal clean air law. EPA Administrator Jackson reportedly has ordered her staff to conduct an internal review of what options the agency has to reduce risks from accidents or terrorist attacks at chemical facilities.
The former governor’s strong stance on the issue surprised a former critic of her administration. “It’s not the Christie Whitman I know,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “She did a lot to weaken chemical safety and enforcement in New Jersey during her terms.’’