Friends at Greenpeace asked me to visit Washington this week to meet with some key Senators who will be voting soon on chemical plant security.
While admittedly only one on a list of many potential terrorist targets across this country, chemical plants must be given greater attention since from a terrorist's perspective chemical plants offer a maximum kill rate for a minimal effort. Studies have shown that just one chemical facility can place up to a million people at risk.
The facts illustrate that virtually every major populated area has one or more of the 5,000 most lethal, "high-risk"chemical facilities. Sadly, many of these facilities suffer from lax oversight, poor perimeter security, and vulnerable operating technologies.
Such facilities are open to: aerial attack (a terrorist flying a small, private plane into the facility); cyber-attack (a terrorist logging in and overtaking an operating system from a net café half way around the world); internal attack (a disgruntled employee deciding to push a button); and/or mere human error (BP's Deep Horizon oil spill proves that catastrophic accidents can and do happen).
Short of handing out HAZMAT suits and masks to every individual living within the zone of danger, there are other feasible ways to make such lethal facilities safer. One simple way is to use smart security. Smart security essentially means substituting the lethal variety of a chemical with a non-lethal alternative so that if an accidental release occurs nobody dies. Here is a list of 500+ success stories.
Admittedly, using such alternatives will initially create a nominal cost increase to the chemical company but perhaps, more importantly, smart security means no dead people for the surrounding community. Seems like a no-brainer, right?
Nope, it's not because for some in Washington it remains business as usual.
Kristen Breitweiser, 9/11 widow and activist, is known for pressuring official Washington to provide a public accounting to the American people of what went wrong on the morning of September 11 and in the months leading up to the disaster that claimed the life of her husband and more than 3000 others.
110 million Americans live with the risk of a large-scale chemical disaster, and many of those are the brave citizens who respond when the worst happens. Ed Schlegel is a retired Fire Captain in California who has first-hand experience with responding to a chemical disaster. He was one of the brave citizens who marched into a chemical plant leaking deadly chlorine gas when the employees were running out. He is proud to protect us, but he knows than many chemical plants don't have to pose this risk.
It's hard to believe that in a post-9/11 world we are not doing everything we can to reduce terrorist targets. All over the country there are chemical and water treatment facilities that are like sitting ducks, unnecessarily storing large amounts of toxic gasses that put thousands to millions of people at risk of a disaster. As we watch the unfolding tragedy in the Gulf we should realize that hypothetical worst-case scenarios can be frighteningly underestimated when they become a reality.
The Senate Needs To Act
Congress has been wrestling with chemical security standards for over a decade and it is now the Senate's turn to pass common-sense measures that reduce the risk of a catastrophic release of poison gas. Senator Lautenberg of New Jersey (a state riddled with chemical facilities) introduced a package of legislation last week that would protect millions of Americans. Once again, though, industry is putting profits over disaster prevention by spreading unsubstantiated claims of economic disaster and job loss.
Today, Greenpeace announced that our citizens’ inspection of the Kuehne Chemical plant near New York City in South Kearny, NJ showed that the two million pounds of Chlorine gas on site puts up to 12 million people in the New York area at risk. This “worst case scenario,” defined by their Risk Management Plan submitted to the Environmental Protection Agency, would occur from the release of just one full rail car of chlorine gas. There could be enough chlorine gas on site at the Kuehne facility to fill 11 rail cars and the Department of Homeland Security has said that a terrorist attack would likely be worse than a worst-case scenario.
Imagine a low-lying cloud of lethal chlorine gas spreading through New York City or your home town, stretching 15 miles past your childhood playground, your place of worship, or your friends’ homes. Imagine that you witness the same horror seen by American troops when Hitler used chlorine gas as a weapon: people gasping for air and grasping their throats as fumes melted their lungs and slowly suffocate them. Imagine that your Senator could have done something to prevent this.
Last November the House of Representatives passed a bill that November that would require high-risk chemical facilities to convert to safer chemicals if feasible. Soon afterward Senator Lautenberg pledged to introduce similar legislation in the Senate. We expect that legislation to come out soon and we need the full Senate to take action this summer. If the U.S. Senate fails to act this year, you could be one in three Americans who will remain at risk.
The terrorist attacks on September 11 shocked us all and set into motion the tightening of our security systems. While we’ve added air puffing machines to our airports, metal detectors, x-ray machines, and requirements to take off our shoes, our elected officials have all but ignored the fact that the nation’s dangerous chemical facilities remain unsecured. There are so many of these facilities, that the Department of Homeland Security can only inspect less than 5% of these plants they themselves have identified as high-risk.
This Risk is Unnecessary
This risk need not exist. This facility, as well as other high-risk facilities around the country, could convert to a safer process. One example is Clorox, the most recognizable name in chlorine products, which has pledged to convert all of its plants over the next few years. Dow Chemical is even converting a facility using “just in time” technology that eliminates large storage of chlorine on site. But even with the 500 or more plants that have converted over the last decade, over 110 million Americans still live within the vulnerability zone of a catastrophic chemical disaster; one-third of our population.
Almost nine years after the worst terrorist attack on American soil in history, our most vulnerable targets remain at risk. Simple, inexpensive, and common sense changes, like substituting or reducing the amount of lethal gases stored on-site, would protect millions of people from harm. As Senator Lieberman said during a hearing earlier this year, safer technologies are “the only fool proof way to defeat a terrorist determined to strike a chemical facility.” In that same hearing Senator Voinovich of Ohio asked, “What’s the need… is there something that’s going to happen that’s catastrophic?” Well, Senator, you sound like your peers who asked me the same questions when lifting the off-shore oil ban.
We need our Senators to support Senator Lautenberg’s bill and stand up to industry lobbyists, take action by sending a message to you Senator.
Here's a note from Renee, who works in San Francisco as a toxics campaigner trying to encourage electronics companies to go green:
Greenpeace activists have shown up at Dell headquarters in Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Bangalore, and Austin. Plus, more than 40,000 activists around the world have sent emails asking Dell to design out toxics. Dell's hearing your message.
In 2006, Dell committed to eliminating PVC plastic and brominated flame retardants (BFRs) from all their products by 2009. But halfway through 2010, Dell has yet to meet this original deadline and it doesn’t look like this giant electronics company will even meet its new deadline of 2011. It’s clear that Michael Dell is all talk and no action.
Here are answers to some common questions we've heard about why we are pressing Dell and why our Greener Electronics campaign is important.
Question: Why does Greenpeace care what Dell does - they're not the biggest PC manufacturer, and they're not the worst of them all (Nintendo is)?
Answer: Dell is the 3rd largest computer manufacturer in the world with 12% of the entire market. That adds up to a significant amount of influence over the electronics industry. With HP and Apple already making most (HP) if not all (Apple) of their products free from PVC and BFRs, adding Dell to this list of industry leaders would help pressure the rest of supply chain, and the industry, to eliminate these toxic chemicals once and for all.
What does Dell say?
Question: Why haven't they followed through?
Answer: Thousands of our supporters have emailed Dell about its broken promises on PVC and BFRs. Dell has sent emails back saying they are facing some challenges. However, these challenges have been met with solutions by Dell’s largest competitors including Apple and HP. Apple has completely eliminated PVC and BFRs from all their products and HP has eliminated these chemicals from a significant portion of their products. The solutions and alternatives exist and their supply chain is ready. Dell has run out of excuses.
Are they taking responsibility?
Question: How does Dell make sure that their computers aren't shipped to developing countries? And how much responsibility do they take for the health and environmental damages their products cause?
Answer: Dell was one of the first companies to implement a voluntary take back policy in 2006, which Greenpeace applauded. But today this policy still doesn’t extend to all countries where Dell products are sold. With the growing e-waste problem reaching, by U.N. estimates, 20-50 million tons annually, not taking a global and comprehensive approach to preventing Dell products from ending up in scrap yards is irresponsible.
It is important to remember that having a take back program alone isn’t enough. Without the elimination of PVC and BFRs from all electronics products, Dell is polluting our health and the environment through the use of these chemicals.
If you haven’t already, take action!
And if you have more questions, please post them in the comments.
Our message, delivered on Dell’s campus with an enormous banner suspended from the roof, was addressed to CEO Michael Dell and read: “Michael, What the Dell? Delete Toxics Now.” The protest follows similar demonstrations against Dell at its offices in Bangalore, Amsterdam, and Copenhagen. Greenpeace is pressuring Dell around the world to let the company and the public know that while Dell's competitors are phasing out the use polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic and brominated flame retardants (BFRs), Dell is falling behind and is contributing to the mounting e-waste problem that is poisoning communities in places like China and in West African nations.
PVC and BFRs are highly toxic and can release dioxin, a known carcinogen, when burned. With the growing tsunami of electronic waste being shipped to developing countries for open burning, workers who deal with e-waste are at the most significant risk for health impacts. Eliminating these substances will decrease exposure to workers and consumers and will increase the recyclability and reusability of electronic products.
The amount of electronic products discarded globally has skyrocketed recently, with 20-50 million tons generated every year. If such a huge figure is hard to imagine, think of it like this: If the estimated amount of e-waste generated every year would be put into containers on a train, it would go all the way around the world. E-waste now makes up five percent of all municipal solid waste worldwide, nearly the same amount as all plastic packaging, but much more hazardous. And it's not only developed countries that generate e-waste: Asia discards an estimated 12 million tons each year.
E-waste is now the fastest growing component of the municipal solid waste stream, due largely to people upgrading their mobile phones, computers, televisions, audio equipment and printers more frequently than ever before. In Europe, e-waste is increasing at three to five percent a year, almost three times faster than the total waste stream. Developing countries are also expected to triple their e-waste production over the next five years.
Greenpeace and Consumer Electronics
For the past five years, Greenpeace has been campaigning for electronics companies to reduce toxic chemicals usage and improve take-back and responsible recycling programs. This involves regular meetings with many of these companies to exchange information and discuss company progress and relevant industry developments.
Our primary tool for tracking the progress of consumer electronics companies is the Greenpeace Guide to Greener Electronics, which is updated quarterly. In the latest version of the Guide, both Apple and HP moved up, their scores fueled by having new computer lines free of PVC and BFRs, demonstrating the technical feasibility and supply chain readiness of producing alternatives to these hazardous substances. Dell stands in 10th place, having been penalized in the previous ranking for its backtracking on PVC/BFR phase out.
There is still time for Dell to do the right thing and honor its commitment to phase out toxic PVC and BFRs. As an electronics industry leader, Dell’s move would be seen as a true game changer. People concerned with Dell’s toxics backtracking can take action.
As former DuPont CEO Charles Holliday told the media in 2007, there’s little anyone can do to prevent a plane from flying into one of their plants. But what DuPont can do is switch to safer processes. Even Dow Chemical is doing that at one of their plants. They partnered with K2Pure Solutions and will eliminate the storage and transport of 90-ton rail cars of chlorine gas by switching to a small batch process. Clorox is also doing the same company-wide. And the railroads, which bring the chlorine to DuPont, no longer want to haul these cargoes. The Association of American Railroads says if these plants won’t convert, Congress should make them.
Inside the Edge Moor, DE DuPont plant we met DuPont spokesman Rick Straitman. He didn’t dispute the inherent danger of their chlorine gas and assured us that they were looking for safer alternatives. But he wouldn’t comment on why DuPont is lobbying Congress to kill legislation that would prevent chemical disasters.
Together 300 U.S. chemical plants put 110 million Americans at risk. Yet 40 million Americans no longer face these risks thanks to the conversion of 500 plants to safer chemical processes. But at the current rate of conversions it will take over 40 years for the highest risk plants to convert. The Senate needs to adopt legislation (H.R. 2868) passed by the House last year. They need to make sure that the highest risk plants use safer alternatives where ever possible. Let your Senator know today.
Today there are still 300 chemical plants that together put 110 million Americans at risk of a disaster worse than Bhopal or 9/11 because each of these plants has enough poison gas on site to kill or injure potentially millions of people living down wind. In June of 2002, the Bush EPA drafted rules for chemical plants as part of a proposed chemical security program to encourage the use of safer chemical processes to eliminate catastrophic hazards. It was so encouraging that the Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee voted unanimously for a bill that would have required high risk chemical facilities to use safer chemical processes. Had either the EPA or the Senate bill been adopted they would have been fully implemented by 2004. Unfortunately the Bush White House scuttle the EPA proposal and the Congress let the EPW bill die.
Today we might be evaluating the success or failure of that program. Instead we are relying on a 740 word temporary law passed in 2006 that gave Congress three years to enact a comprehensive law. At a March 3rd Senate hearing the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) admitted that they will not complete inspections of the 229 highest risk plants until the end of 2010. Yet Republican leaders, backed by the chemical lobby, want to extend this temporary law for five years!
Let's review the temporary law that chemical makers like so much. It exempts 2,400 water treatment plants and 500 port facilities. It bars the DHS from requiring the use of "any particular security measure." That's like prohibiting fire proofing and prevention systems that are required in public buildings. In this case it would mean requiring the use a safer chemical processes.
The chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security, Senator Joe Lieberman (I-CT) calls these safer chemical processes "the only foolproof way to defeat a terrorist determined to strike a chemical facility." Instead the current law is based on voluntary industry programs and it doesn't even provide one dollar to assist facilities with conversion costs.
Meanwhile the DHS is spending time and money on "smell phones" to detect poison gas releases and report them via text messages. They might as well buy 100,000 body bags.
The good news is that in November the House of Representatives passed a bill (H.R. 2868) that for the first time would require the use of "foolproof" processes to eliminate these unbelievable risks. Days before the vote, Clorox announced that they were converting all of their U.S. plants to safer processes just as hundreds of other plants have done over the last decade. Those conversions have eliminated chemical disaster risks for 40 million Americans but not at the 300 plants that put 110 million of us in jeopardy.
Senator Lautenberg (D-NJ) is expected to introduce a bill like the House passed bill very soon. Recently, there was a story in Politico that unearthed this sad history and the status of legislation in the Senate.
Please tell your Senator to take action today!
There’s just no way we can prepare for a chemical disaster. It’s unnerving to say, but airborne chemicals travel faster than we could run or drive out of harms way. That’s why we have to focus on preventing these chemical disasters from occuring in the first place! Let’s tighten up security and keep everyone safe.
I was astounded to find out that a third of Americans are at risk. The Department of Homeland Security has identified over 5,800 “high-risk” chemical plants. An accident or an attack on just 300 of them would put 110 million Americans at risk. There is a good possibility that you are at risk of exposure if an accident were to occur.
But, what kinds of chemicals are being produced at these plants that are risky? I did some digging and found out that chlorine gas is one of the most dangerous chemicals that environmentalists and legislators are trying to protect us from.Chlorine is used in the production of thousands of products, from household cleaning supplies, to the disinfecting of water; making it one of the top ten most produced chemicals in the United States. It is a naturally occuring chemical element, one of 100 others that make up basic building blocks of matter. Chlorine’s popular disinfectant properties stem from its unstable manner. It easily bonds with other chemicals to destroy various bacteria (most commonly found in nature as already bonded).
However, when isolated Chlorine becomes incredibly dangerous. At room temperature elemental Chlorine is a yellowish-green gas with a pungent odor similar to that of bleach. For shipment and storage, the gas is usually pressurized and cooled to form an amber liquid. If the chemical were to leak, it would quickly turn into a gas and spread rapidly.
Chlorine is incredibly dangerous, unstable and can react with a variety of other chemicals when released into the environment. An accidental leak or spill can pose serious health risks to those exposed. Low levels of exposure can lead to eye, nose, and throat irritation. However, breathing in high levels of airborne chlorine can lead to fluid build up in the lungs, formally known as Pulmonary Edema. This build up can cause shortness of breath and lead to respiratory failure. If not treated this condition can be fatal. 63 of the 101 most dangerous “high-risk” facilities are chlorine gas plants.
But, on the bright side of all this Clorox recently announced that they would move away from extremely hazardous chlorine gas and start using liquid bleach to add extra layers of security.
This highlights the exciting news that safer alternatives are out there! But, unless Congress passes legislation, not everyone will follow the new safety standards. That’s why we’re doing everything we can to push Congress in the right direction. The House of Representatives passed a comprehensive chemical security bill last year. Whoo hooo! Now, it’s the Senate’s turn. And, the timing couldn’t be more urgent. Please help us get the word out.
Take Action. We need to make sure that the bill coming out of the Senate is just as strong as the one that the House passed. That’s where we need your help! Start a picket! Riot in the streets! Well…maybe those aren’t such good ideas. A simple phone call or letter to your Senators can go a long way. You can make a difference.
We can't let the chemical industry lobbyist win! They've been blocking strong chemical security legislation for nine years. These “big business” lobbyists are pulling out all the stops to prevent safety from prevailing. In 2008 Greenpeace identified 169 lobbyists registered to keep Congress from enacting a strong chemical security law. We can’t let them win!
Do you have a few minutes to help us win this important campaign? All you have to do is pick up your phones and call your Senators. It’s easy to do and makes a big difference.
Step 1: Pick up your phone and call the Senate switchboard at (202) 224-3121. Ask for your Senator and you'll be transferred to their office line. If you don't know your Senator, the switchboard will help you find that out.
Step 2: When the receptionist answers the phone tell them your name and where you're from (city, state).
Step 3: Ask if you can leave a message for your Senator. Here is an example of a message that you can leave,
"As a concerned citizen and one of your constituents, I’m calling to ask you to co-sponsor and support Senator Lautenberg's Secure Chemical and Water Facilities Act when it's introduced and comes up for a vote. Putting millions of Americans needlessly at risk when there are safer alternatives readily available is dangerous and doesn't make sense."
Step 4: Once you’ve made the call, brag about it! Tell us you made the call and we’ll jump for joy.
It’s just unbelievable that one in three Americans are put at an unnecessary risk from dangerous chemical plants. It’s time for all of us to do our part to get the word out. Thank you so much for your help.
One in three Americans is currently at unnecessary risk from dangerous chemical plants. One in three!
And, if you think that’s crazy, wait until you read this. There are safer alternatives to keep us out of harm’s way, but they’re not being used. What’s the holdup? While Congress has the opportunity to change all this, chemical security lobbyists are pulling out all the stops to put profits and politics above our safety and security.
We've proven that we can take on these chemical lobbyists. Last November, the House of Representatives passed comprehensive chemical security legislation. Now, it’s the Senate’s turn. But, we need YOU to take action once again, telling your Senators to get tough on chemical security.
Your help is urgently needed because just this week Senators are meeting to discuss taking up the House bill and to kick off the process. We need to make sure that the bill that comes out of the Senate does as much to protect Americans as the version that passed the House.
Putting millions of Americans needlessly at risk when there are safer alternatives readily available just doesn’t make any sense. Your Senators have a chance to end this insanity by supporting comprehensive chemical security legislation this year. Please take action today.
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