Christine Todd Whitman
January 29, 2018
In every State of the Union, presidents talk about threats to the homeland. President Donald Trump certainly will. When he does, I hope he includes the threat that has been hanging over our heads for more than 15 years: deliberate or accidental releases of toxic chemicals that put nearly 180 million Americans is harm’s way every day.
Since shortly after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, I have been advocating for tougher standards on chemical plants to reduce their vulnerability to attack. These tougher standards would also make Americans safer from accidental releases of toxic chemicals.
Unfortunately, both the Bush and Obama administrations failed to take the steps needed to make safer those Americans who live near the 12,000 chemical facilities that pose the greatest risk. The Trump administration now has the opportunity, and responsibility, to do what his two predecessors failed to do.
Last summer’s explosion at the Houston-area Arkema plant was a striking reminder of the danger we face. Overwhelmed by Hurricane Harvey, the facility’s chemicals—known to be combustible if they grew too warm—caught fire. A dark cloud spewed toxic chemicals into the air, as first responders rushed to the scene and nearby communities fled, all in the midst of the hurricane recovery.
Faulty equipment and poor planning were to blame. Arkema also failed to alert first responders of the toxic chemicals. Nearly two dozen police and EMTs were hospitalized when poison smoke overtook them. They collapsed, choked and vomited right in the middle of the street.
Unfortunately, the Arkema disaster wasn’t a lone example. It’s evidence of a far larger problem. In February 2017, a chemical plant leak in Alabama released 738 pounds of chlorine gas. Because of inadequate disclosure and preparation, the plant failed to warn nearby residents of the noxious gas; first responders, unaware of the danger, deployed right into the choking cloud. Last May, a Kentucky refinery released chemical vapors without warning. Because of inadequate disclosure and preparation, a nearby elementary school didn’t know to shelter in place to limit their exposure.
In fact, from 2004 to 2013, there were 2,200 accidents at chemical facilities. In total, they killed 60 people, injured 17,000, forced nearly half a million to shelter in place or evacuate and caused $2.7 billion of damage.
Our lax chemical safety rules are a public health and national security crisis. American families and first responders need action. They need the Chemical Disaster Rule.
The Chemical Disaster rule was drafted at the end of the Obama administration after years of evaluation and consultation with expert agencies like the Department of Homeland Security, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Chemical Safety Board. And while the rule isn’t all I hoped it would be, it is a much-needed step in the right direction.
The Chemical Disaster Rule requires oil refineries and other chemical facilities to evaluate safety improvements to stop disasters and save lives. Furthermore, it requires facilities to coordinate and share information with first responders, like firefighters and medical teams.
Put simply, the Chemical Disaster Rule will help stop chemical disasters and protect first responders from harm if disaster does strike. It’s smart policy.
Sadly, it’s also under siege. It’s no secret that the Trump administration has taken aim at many Obama-era rules. And last year, Scott Pruitt, Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency administrator, froze the rule until 2019. He did so, oddly, even though he acknowledged the grave risk that chemical facilities pose as “soft targets to terrorists.”
Freezing the Chemical Disaster Rule is not putting “America first”; protecting families and first responders from chemical disasters is putting the American people first. That’s why I am urging Trump to stand up for families and first responders, and to stand up for the Chemical Disaster Rule.
The president must make this a priority. To protect our people and our police, he must implement the Chemical Disaster Rule.
We face many threats to the homeland, but chemical safety is far too often overlooked. Yet, it’s our failing chemical safety laws that are a disaster waiting to happen.
Christine Todd Whitman, president of the Whitman Strategy Group, was the Environmental Protection Agency administrator from 2001 to 2003, and the governor of New Jersey from 1994 to 2001.