New federal regulations for chemical facilities neither require nor encourage companies to switch from potentially dangerous chemicals to less hazardous substitutes, and that has some lawmakers and activists worried.
Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, and three Democratic colleagues expressed "deep concern" Monday about the reported thefts and attempted thefts of chlorine gas from California water treatment plants.
In a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff they said the incidents underscored the need to switch to safer liquid chlorine or other methods for water treatment.
Chlorine gas can be fatal, and it has been used as a weapon in a series of chemical bomb attacks in recent months in Iraq.
The new rules released earlier this month for the first time give the government the authority to regulate high-risk plants to ensure they are secured from either accident or attack. Regulators are empowered to impose civil penalties up to $25,000 (EUR 18,440) a day, and even to shut down chemical facilities that fail to comply with the rules.
Chertoff has said he does not want to micromanage industry from Washington. "We want to set down standards and requirements but we do not want to necessarily prescribe the exact way in which a plant is going to meet those standards," he said. "We want to unleash the ingenuity of the private sector to figure out what is the best way to skin this cat, just as long as the cat gets skinned."
That view was echoed by the American Chemistry Council's spokesman, Scott Jensen, who said industry objects to having the government tell plants when and where they should convert. He added that forcing alternatives could be cumbersome, expensive, and lead to unintended consequences.
Activists offer the story of the Blue Plains sewage treatment plant in Washington, D.C., as an example of a change to a safer alternative that was accomplished quickly and without excessive additional cost.
After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, plant manager Mike Marcotte could not sleep at night because of the potential hazard posed by several rail cars loaded with chlorine gas sitting at his facility. "They were extremely attractive targets," he said in an interview. An attack on the tanks could have released a toxic cloud endangering nearly 2 million people.
Marcotte decided he needed to move quickly. Having already made plans to replace chlorine gas with liquid bleach within the next few years, he rapidly accelerated those plans. Within 90 days, the conversion was complete.
Construction costs were about $500,000 (EUR 368,815) and subsequent upgrades cost about $15 million (EUR 11 million). The safer liquid bleach added about 25 cents to the average customer's monthly bill. But it was no longer necessary to have police cars patrolling around the clock, so security costs dropped substantially.
It's not just plants that make chemicals that are potentially hazardous; there are also facilities that use chemicals to produce other products _ for example, petroleum refineries may use hydrogen fluoride; power plants may use anhydrous ammonia, and water treatment plants use chlorine and sulfur dioxide gas. All are toxic if inhaled, and they are used in 55 percent of the industrial processes that threaten communities nationwide, according to the environmental group Greenpeace.
There are widely available safer alternatives for those gases.
The liberal-leaning Center for American Progress, in a 2006 study, said more than 284 facilities in 47 states have converted to safer alternatives since 1999. As a result, the Center said, at least 30 million people no longer live under the threat of a major toxic gas cloud. Some examples:
- Nottingham Water Treatment Plant, Cleveland, Ohio, now treats drinking water with bleach instead of chlorine gas.
- Wyandotte Wastewater Treatment Facility, near Detroit, switched from chlorine gas to ultraviolet light.
- DuPont Soy Polymers, Louisville, Kentucky, changed from using anhydrous sulfur dioxide to the safer sodium bisulfite.
Since 1999, the Center says, 25 water utilities that formerly received shipments of chlorine gas by rail have switched to safer and more secure options, such as liquid bleach or ultraviolet light. But 37 drinking water and wastewater treatment facilities still receive chlorine gas by rail, leaving 25 million Americans living in harm's way either nearby or in towns along the rail route.
Cleveland and Indianapolis both converted their water utilities from chlorine gas, but they are still at risk from railcars headed to other cities such as Minneapolis and Nashville that have not converted.
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