Thousands Of Chemical Facilities Pose A Risk To Populations Greater Than West, Texas

Photo via the AP

West, Texas, where a fertilizer plant exploded two weeks ago and killed 15 while injuring more than 160 people, is a small town of just 2,800 people. There are thousands of other chemical facilities around the country that pose a risk to far larger populations.

In a November memo prepared for Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), the Congressional Research Service reviewed all of the chemical facilities that submit risk management plans to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Facilities that process 140 specific chemicals above certain thresholds are required to submit plans. Each facility must calculate how the population within a certain radius of its plant would be affected by “a worse-case scenario release from a single chemical process.” Given weather effects, demographics, and potential precautions taken by each facility, the report says “it is unlikely that this entire population would be affected by any single chemical release, even if it is a result of a worst-case accident.”

Yet nearly 7,000 facilities – 6,985 to be exact – report that they post a risk to populations greater than 1,000, with 90 that could impact more than 1 million people in a worst-case scenario. 4,425 would likely impact a population similar to the town of West, or between 1,000 and 9,999 people.

Even worse, West Fertilizer Co. wasn’t included in these numbers, as it had told the EPA that it didn’t pose a risk of fire or explosion. It claimed that the worst-case scenario was a 10-minute release of ammonia gas or a leak from a broken hose, neither of which would harm anyone.

A 2008 report from the Center for American Progress looked at how to make the nation’s 101 most dangerous chemical facilities, which could impact populations above 1 million, less dangerous by converting them to safer and more secure substances and technologies. For plants that manufacture ammonia fertilizer, the report suggested reducing the amount of ammonia they store by using liquid nitrogen and dry urea fertilizers, which “do not post the emergency gas release hazards of anhydrous ammonia.”

Yet a 2009 bill to tighten security standards for chemical factories, fertilizer depots, and water-treatment plants was met by a $51 million lobbying campaign by big business. Two large lobbying forces, the Chamber of Commerce and the American Farm Bureau, labeled it a “key vote” for the year. The bill passed the House but then died in the Senate.

The industry has given $34 million to political candidates in the last three elections, two-thirds of whom were Republicans, and two fertilizer industry groups have spent $17.3 million on lobbying since 1998 with stated opposition to EPA regulation of fertilizer safety. The industry has already made statements in opposition to new regulations after the explosion in Texas.

Texas lawmakers have also recently sought to weaken the state environmental agency that oversaw the West plant and reduced its budget by $305 million. Governor Rick Perry (R) has also indicated that he isn’t interested in new safety regulations. Meanwhile, members have Congress have recently worked to advance a bill that would weaken the EPA’s powers to regulate major chemical plants.