By Christine Todd Whitman
June 19, 2013

In June 3, New Jersey lost a dedicated public servant in Sen. Frank Lautenberg. And while many eloquent tributes have been paid to his service, there is a more lasting way to honor the legacy of this legislator who fought hard for the health and welfare of his constituents.

Over the years, Sen. Lautenberg was a consistent advocate for increased measures to safeguard communities adjacent to our nation’s chemical facilities — an issue made tragically relevant by the deadly April 17 chemical explosion at the West, Texas, fertilizer plant that claimed 15 lives. This is an issue about which he and I substantially agreed.

As anyone who lives in New Jersey knows, our state is host to numerous chemical plants, including several adjacent to densely populated communities in North Jersey and along the Delaware River. Data from the Environmental Protection Agency, which I led from 2001 to 2003, show New Jersey is home to facilities that could, through either an accidental or deliberately caused release, pose catastrophic risks to millions.

New Jersey is hardly unique in this regard: According to the Congressional Research Service, 473 chemical facilities across the United States each put 100,000 or more people at risk of a disaster.

It was exactly these kinds of disasters that Sen. Lautenberg worked to prevent. He was one of the authors of the right-to-know provision in the 1986 Superfund law, played a lead role in the 1990 Clean Air Act and introduced the first Chemical Security Act in 1999.

In the days following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, national security experts called for greater safeguards at the nation’s chemical facilities, a goal both Sen. Lautenberg and I worked to achieve.

According to the Congressional Research Service, 473 chemical facilities across the U.S. each put 100,000 or more people at risk of a disaster.
The 1990 Clean Air Act (which Sen. Lautenberg strongly supported) contains chemical disaster prevention authority that could do more to protect Americans from catastrophic chemical tragedies than anything that has been done to date. In fact, as EPA administrator after 9/11, we drafted proposed rules based on that law — rules that unfortunately were never put into practice, thanks to industry pressure on the White House.

However, former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson was recently asked if the EPA should now use that authority to prevent disasters. She immediately said, “We need to use the authority we have now.”

Public attention has returned to the ever-present threat posed by these facilities following the West, Texas, disaster. Recently, the New York Times again editorialized on the dangers posed by the nation’s thousands of chemical plants, which collectively put more than 100 million Americans at risk of injury or death. In March 2012, the EPA’s National Environmental Justice Advisory Council urged the EPA to use its Clean Air Act authority to prevent chemical disasters, a recommendation I strongly endorse.

The disaster in West, Texas, and other accidents before and since, such as the May 28 train derailment and chemical explosion near Baltimore, are tragic reminders that this authority must be exercised. There are few issues as urgent as making our nation’s chemical facilities safer and more secure for the millions of Americans who live in their shadow.

One way to honor Sen. Lautenberg in a manner he would undoubtedly approve would be to reduce the threat to the health and safety of plant employees and community residents alike by requiring chemical facilities to use safer chemical processes, when such processes are practical and available.

To achieve that goal, I urge President Obama to direct the EPA to use the provisions in the law that Sen. Lautenberg helped pass in the Senate and which President George H.W. Bush signed in 1990, to start reducing the risk of chemical disasters today.

The president consistently supported this policy in Homeland Security legislation and promised it in his 2008 platform. Reducing the risk of another chemical disaster is a fitting way to honor Frank Lautenberg.

Christine Todd Whitman, a former governor of New Jersey and administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is president of the Whitman Strategy Group.