Mike Stone / Landov / Reuters

How industrial disasters discriminate

The socioeconomic dimensions of chemical explosions

July 21, 2014 6:00AM ET

It is tempting to think that the horrific fertilizer explosion in West, Texas, that killed 15 people and injured almost 200 others last year couldn’t happen in your hometown.

Unfortunately, too many communities across the country have had similar disasters. A 2012 fire at the Chevron plant in Richmond, California, sent 15,000 people to the hospital. In January of this year, a chemical spill contaminated the drinking water of 300,000 people in Charleston, West Virginia. Numerous smaller incidents have forced communities across the U.S. to evacuate or shelter in place. And despite these incidents, there has been a steady increase in the number of these dangerous chemical facilities. In 2012 the Congressional Research Service reported that there were 12,440 facilities; in 2014, an interagency working group report released to the White House reported 12,700.

It takes only one chemical disaster to change a community for a lifetime. Vulnerable populations, especially low-income, black and Latino communities, are already disproportionately threatened daily by air pollution and the health risks associated with routine exposures. Many of these same chemical facilities also put communities at risk of a catastrophic disaster that could kill or injure thousands in minutes simply because the facilities refuse to use safer available chemicals or processes that could eliminate these hazards. 

In fact, a report released in May by the White House attributes more than 75 deaths to chemical-facility disasters in the period since the president took office. While recognizing the very real danger that unsecured chemical plants pose to communities across the country, the report offered very little to safeguard families from the risk of another chemical facility disaster.

We need to do better.

Eliminating risks

A new report, “Who’s in Danger? Race, Poverty, and Chemical Disasters: A Demographic Analysis of Chemical Disaster Vulnerability Zones,” by the Environmental Justice and Health Alliance, details at least 3,433 facilities in the United States that have the potential to become chemical disasters and explains why we need to require the use of safer chemicals and processes to eliminate these risks. Communities such as Mossville, Louisiana; Wilmington, Delaware; Los Angeles; Albuquerque, New Mexico; and hundreds of others see this report as a clarion call for their safety. These communities are either majority African-American, Latino or lower income, and their proximity to hazardous chemicals subjects them to the daily threats of higher disproportionate exposure to dirty air and water, over and above their lower access to health care, increased health risks and lack of political influence.

The dangers from chemical plants are entirely preventable. For instance, several Clorox plants, including one in Houston, overhauled their facilities by removing the use of large amounts of dangerous chlorine from their bleach-making process. To be sure, such overhauls have a price tag — it can cost one facility between $100,000 and $1 million — but as a consequence the Houston plant eliminated this hazard to 1.8 million residents. In Albuquerque, the Southside Water Reclamation Plant used an ultraviolet disinfection system that protects 160,000 people who live near the plant from exposure to chlorine, which is more commonly used in water treatment — but this didn’t happen until communities in Albuquerque organized to address the risk posed by the wastewater treatment plant.

These people are living next door to a chemical soup of anhydrous ammonia, chlorine, sulfur dioxide and hydrogen fluoride — each of which, if released, can kill within minutes.

While solutions can be found when people band together, too few have ways of learning about the dangers in their own communities. Just last week, Texas Attorney General (and leading gubernatorial candidate) Greg Abbott told voters they should just “drive around” and ask chemical facilities if they have toxic chemicals on-site rather than demanding that state and local governments create readily available resources for residents. Not coincidentally, Abbott has also received $75,000 from Koch Industries interests — in other words, the chemical industry knows how to buy silence.

Even when communities stand up, these local fights are, at best, a piecemeal fix that leaves a patchwork of danger across even the most engaged cities and towns. Albuquerque, for example, still has nine schools located within a mile of other high-risk facilities. The people in these communities, including their children and elderly, are living, learning, working and playing next door to a chemical soup of anhydrous ammonia, chlorine, sulfur dioxide and hydrogen fluoride — each of which, if released, can kill within minutes. Even low doses can result in respiratory, neurological and cardiovascular dysfunction. 

Historic opportunity

Since passage of the 1990 Clean Air Act, the Environmental Protection Agency has never used its disaster prevention authority to require companies to use safer technologies, safer operating procedures or safer chemical alternatives when they are available and are affordable. However, President Barack Obama issued an executive order in August 2013 calling for the EPA, the Department of Homeland Security and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to take the lead in finding real solutions to chemical facility disasters. This action has afforded the historic opportunity to prevent another West, Texas, tragedy and protect communities that are already vulnerable.

As the president and federal agencies evaluate how to prevent chemical facility disasters, Americans have been speaking up to tell Obama: It’s time to make sure Americans are safe from the threat of preventable mishaps. As incidents continue to occur across the country, we join them by demanding that the president take urgent action to prevent future disasters by requiring high-risk facilities to switch to safer alternatives.

Robert Bullard is dean of the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University and author of more than a dozen books that address environmental justice and health issues.

Richard Moore is the coordinator of the Los Jardines Institute in Albuquerque, New Mexico, co-coordinator of the Environmental Justice and Health Alliance and co-author of the new report “Who’s in Danger? A Demographic Analysis of Chemical Disaster Vulnerability Zones.”

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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