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Bill would help neighbors breathe easier

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Source: Pittsburgh Live

See Also:
Lax security exposes lethal chemical supplies.
Toxins often vulnerable during transit.
Regulators, industry try to seal disaster plans.

Bill would help neighbors breathe easier

By Carl Prine
Monday, April 8, 2002

In the coming weeks, the Congress will begin debate on a bill designed to make living near chemical plants safer.

A Pittsburgh Tribune-Review investigation published Sunday showed that lax security at chemical plants throughout the area makes them vulnerable to terrorist attacks, endangering more than a million western Pennsylvania residents. It also showed how little the people living around the plants knew about the chemicals used, made or stored there.

If enacted, the Senate bill, written by New Jersey Democratic Sen. Jon Corzine, would force the federal government to inventory risks that could be exploited by terrorists at every major chemical site nationwide, including the volume and varieties of toxins stored there and how many people are put at risk if a chemical is released. Information about a plant’s chemical dangers would be made public to alert neighbors.

To reduce risk, companies would have to create "buffer zones" separating plants from people, adopt inherently safer technologies or simply scrap the hazardous materials onsite. A similar reduction program in New Jersey prodded 553 out of 575 waste treatment centers using deadly chlorine gas to switch to safer alternatives.

Numerous local environmentalists, worker safety advocates and civic organizations — including Pittsburgh's Neville Island Good Neighbor Committee — strongly support the bill.

"We’re not interested in trying to shut someone down, but these hazards certainly can be reduced," said Myron Arnowitt, director of Pittsburgh’s Clean Water Action group. "Safer chemicals and safer processes exist. We can start to mandate them and Sept. 11 seems like a real wake-up call."

Because of state and federal clampdowns on public documents, Arnowitt complains that simply getting the information they need to mobilize opposition to chemical pollution has become nearly impossible. During interviews across western Pennsylvania, the single issue that galvanized most chemical plant neighbors was their right to know about nearby chemical dangers.

"I bought my house and had no idea it was here," said Carolyn Gaetano, glancing at the Bethel Park-South Park sewage treatment plant and its chlorine gas tanks. "There’s no law stating we should be told, I guess.

"There should absolutely be a law, so we can decide if we want to live here or not. Obviously, they don’t want that because we wouldn’t have bought our house."

The chemical industry blasts the proposed federal oversight as overly broad and economically destructive. Insiders worry that sharing information about toxic hazards and security defects with the general public could put dangerous data in the hands of potential terrorists. They also fear corporate executives could be held responsible for simply running chemical plants if they were attacked.

"It makes it a crime to be a victim of a crime," says Dan Wagner, general counsel and a lobbyist for the International Sanitary Supply Association, which represents the firms that use and make chlorine gas. "A terrorist blows up your tank and you’re guilty.

"It will have a devastating economic impact."

And the regulations might not make the world safer, says Pam Witmer, director of the Pennsylvania Chemical Industry Council, which represents large manufacturers statewide. She worries new technologies won’t reduce chemical hazards and new processes will prove too expensive to implement. If the technology leap forward was so great, she says, companies worried about protecting workers already would've jumped. To her, this is a "terrorism bill" that gives the public a false sense of security, but really attacks chemical manufacturers.

"While everyone wants to make a statement that ‘x’ facility or ‘x’ school will be 100 percent safe, that’s not realistic. You have to take steps that are reasonable and will be effective," she said.

The larger American Chemistry Council is making security a top issue. By June, the ACC will adopt stronger safety and security measures, allowing an independent company to review security at sites on behalf of the more than 200 fellow members. But although the ACC represents most of America's largest chemical manufacturers in a $463 billion business, they won't account for thousands of other makers, nor those who transport or store the toxins.

Of the 60 chemical sites in western Pennsylvania with large amounts of hazardous materials, only five belong to the ACC. The Trib visited three of them — Pittsburgh's Neville Chemical Co. and Calgon Carbon and Donora's Laroche Industries — and walked unhindered right into their plants and up to thousands of pounds of toxins.

To critics, the ACC's efforts are really attempts to forestall meaningful federal regulations. They say the ACC and its lobbyists might succeed in thwarting greater protections for the public. They argue the only way to save lives is for the government to force chemical companies to start reducing their stockpiles of toxins and explosives.

"It's clear that site security will fail and that only through reducing chemical hazards can companies not only protect themselves and their employees, but reduce the costs of site security," said Paul Orum, director of the nonprofit Community Right to Know organization.

"It's extremely unfortunate, but probably true, that it will take a big event before we see actual, widespread changes."

Carl Prine can be reached at [email protected] or (412) 320-7826.

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