Chemical explosions … coming from an industry near you?

Posted by admin | Posted in Politics | Posted on 30-04-2013-05-2008

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Fire before the explosion at West Fertilizer Co. in Texas.

The chemical industry—including fertilizer plants—really doesn’t want to improve security standards at potentially dangerous facilities. After the Bush administration blocked stronger regulation of chemical plants in the wake of 9/11, and Senate Republicans backed a bill introduced by then-Sen. Obama in 2006, there was yet another effort to make the industry safer in 2009. Guess what happened next:

Mining companies, refiners, paint makers, explosive fabricators and fertilizer plants combined in a multi-million dollar lobbying campaign to stop the measure. Two of the capital’s most potent lobbying forces—the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and American Farm Bureau—labeled it a “key vote” of the year. The bill, called a highwater mark of chemical- safety efforts by one supporter, passed the House of Representatives, only to die without a vote in the Senate.

So when Republicans say “9/11 changed everything,” there’s an asterisk reading “except our unwillingness to regulate business.” This isn’t a trivial issue we’re talking about, either, as we saw in West, Texas. Chemical plants can pose significant dangers to their workers and surrounding communities—and I do mean significant:

The U.S. has about 90 facilities—including chemical factories, refineries and water-treatment plants—that in a worst-case scenario would pose risks to more than 1 million people, according to a Congressional Research Service report in November that analyzed reports submitted by companies to the EPA.

About 400 other facilities could pose risks to more than 100,000 people, according to the report. The calculations were based on a “worst-case release scenario” such as an explosion or leak, and the proximity of the plant to population centers.

Those are the worst-case scenarios. They may not be very likely. But the West explosion shows that a not-worst-case scenario can be pretty damn bad. Right now, “federal officials are prohibited by law from requiring companies to take specific security measures.” And no fatal, town-flattening explosion is going to make the Chamber of Commerce stop fighting tooth and nail to keep things that way.

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