Preventing Toxic Terrorism

How Some Chemical Facilities Are Removing Danger to American Communities

New report outlines safer alternatives that would prevent a catastrophic chemical release from harming millions of Americans.

Across the country, some 14,000 chemical plants, manufacturers, water utilities and other facilities store and use extremely hazardous substances that can injure or kill employees or residents in nearby communities if suddenly released. Approximately 450 of these facilities each put more than 100,000 people in harm’s way.

The Department of Homeland Security and numerous security experts have warned that terrorists could turn hazardous chemical facilities into improvised weapons of mass destruction. Some of these facilities have replaced acutely hazardous chemicals with safer, readily available alternatives—making themselves less appealing terrorist targets, while also removing the ever-present danger of a serious accident. At these facilities, no failure in safety or security can send a catastrophic gas cloud into a nearby community.

The Center for American Progress, with assistance from the National Association of State PIRGs and National Environmental Trust, conducted a survey to identify such facilities and spotlight successful practices that have removed unnecessary chemical dangers from our communities. This survey (which covered facilities that no longer report using extremely hazardous substances under the federal Risk Management Planning program) found that facilities across the country, representing a range of industries, have switched to safer alternatives from a variety of hazardous chemicals, producing dramatic security and safety benefits at a reasonable cost.

Key findings from the survey include the following:

  • Some 284 facilities in 47 states have dramatically reduced the danger of a chemical release into nearby communities by switching to less acutely hazardous processes or chemicals or moving to safer locations.
  • As a result of these changes, at least 30 million people no longer live under the threat of a major toxic gas cloud from these facilities.
  • Eleven of these facilities formerly threatened more than one million people; another 33 facilities threatened more than 100,000; and an additional 100 threatened more than 10,000.
  • Of respondents that provided cost estimates, roughly half reported spending less than $100,000 to switch to safer alternatives, and few spent over $1 million.
  • Survey respondents represent a range of facilities small and large, including water utilities, manufacturers, power plants, service companies, waste management facilities and agricultural chemical suppliers.
  • Facilities reported replacing gaseous chlorine, ammonia and sulfur dioxide, among other chemicals.
  • The most common reasons cited for making changes included the security and safety of employees and nearby communities, as well as regulatory incentives and business opportunities.
  • Facilities cut a variety of costs and regulatory burdens by switching to less hazardous chemicals or processes. These facilities need fewer physical security and safety measures and can better focus on producing valuable products and services.

Despite this progress, thousands of facilities that could switch to safer alternatives still have not done so. For example, several thousand water treatment plants, many situated in cities and towns, still use chlorine gas. Removing such hazards should be a national strategic priority. Unfortunately, more than four years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the White House and Congress have failed to act. Currently, no federal law or regulation requires hazardous chemical facilities to review or use readily available alternatives.

The facilities identified by the survey show that dramatic improvements are feasible if safety and security are given priority (see full list in Appendix A). For example:

  • The Nottingham Water Treatment Plant in Cleveland, Ohio, now treats drinking water with liquid bleach instead of chlorine gas; some 1.1 million people are no longer at risk of a toxic gas release.
  • The Wyandotte Wastewater Treatment Facility near Detroit, Mich., switched from chlorine gas to ultraviolet light; more than 1 million people are no longer at risk of a toxic gas release.
  • Manhattan Products, in Carlstadt, N.J., now produces household cleaning products with liquid ammonia instead of gaseous ammonia, removing the threat to 160,000 residents.
  • Solae Company dba DuPont Soy Polymers in Louisville, Ky., switched from anhydrous sulfur dioxide to the safer sodium bisulfite for producing food products from soy; the change removed the threat to 37,000 residents.
  • Wisconsin Power’s Pulliam Plant in Green Bay switched from anhydrous to solid sulfur dioxide for pollution control, removing the threat to 180,000 residents.
  • U.S. Filter Recovery Services, in Roseville, Minn., changed treatment chemicals for certain hazardous waste recovery processes; the change eliminated the threat of a gas release to 62,000 residents.

In some cases, facilities may be unable to identify a viable alternative to reduce chemical hazards, but may be able to improve safety and security by consolidating operations or relocating to a less populated area. For example, the Niklor Chemical Company moved from Carson, Calif., to a remote location near Mojave, removing a chlorine-gas danger from an area of 3.5 million residents.

Adopting safer alternatives, however, is the only certain way to prevent a catastrophic chemical release. Many chemical facilities have already taken this step, thereby protecting millions of Americans. Millions more could be taken out of harm’s way with a concerted national effort to convert other high-risk facilities to safer chemicals and processes.

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