New York Times
May 3, 2012

More than a decade after 9/11, thousands of facilities that produce, store or use highly toxic chemicals remain vulnerable to a terrorist attack or accident that could kill or injure hundreds of thousands of people living downwind of an explosion. A Congressional Research Service report identifies 483 facilities in 43 states where a chemical disaster would put 100,000 or more people at risk.

In 2002, Christine Todd Whitman, then the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency for President George W. Bush, joined with other agencies and drafted a strong, comprehensive chemical safety law that, among other things, would have encouraged producers and users of high-risk chemicals to find safer alternatives or processes. Industry fought back, claiming that the law would be too cumbersome and costly. The White House caved and refused to submit the bill.

What eventually emerged from a divided Congress was a weak law that exempted thousands of facilities from any regulation and required little more than “vulnerability assessments” from the rest.

Ms. Whitman has rejoined the fight, with a letter to the present administrator, Lisa Jackson, urging her to invoke the general duty clause in the Clean Air Act to require companies that produce, use or store toxic chemicals to seek out “safer cost-effective processes” and otherwise improve security “before a tragedy of historic proportions occurs.” Ms. Whitman’s letter followed an identical recommendation from the E.P.A.’s National Environmental Justice Advisory Council, which weighed in because chemical plants are often located near poorer neighborhoods that would be disproportionately affected by an explosion.

The general duty clause — known as the “Bhopal amendment” in reference to the 1984 Union Carbide disaster in India — requires facilities to take steps to prevent accidental releases of dangerous chemicals and to “minimize” the consequences of such a release.

Despite what industry may claim, that is not an impossible task. In 2009, largely on its own initiative, the Clorox Company announced that it would convert all its factories that use lethal, chlorine gas to more efficient and safer manufacturing processes that use a less volatile substitute. But, according to Greenpeace, an environmental group in the forefront of efforts to require safer plants, relatively few facilities have followed Clorox’s lead, even though alternatives for dangerous gases, including ammonia and hydrogen fluoride are available.

Ms. Jackson should use her authority under the Clean Air Act. Given the fierce resistance to any sensible regulation by the current group of Congressional Republicans, it may be the only way to address an all too clear and present danger.