In The Public Interest : How Many Reminders Do We Need Before We Act to Reduce Chemical Accident Risk?

Last week's chemical accident in Hungary, when about 184 million gallons of caustic sludge and water burst from a storage pool of a metals plant inundating three western Hungarian towns and spilling into the Danube, is yet another reminder that accidents happen at chemical facilities. It's also a tragic reminder that the communities around the facilities are at risk from the devastating effects of a chemical accident.

It might be comforting to think that the red sludge spill, which has so far killed nine people, left hundreds homeless and poisoned waterways, happened a world away and couldn't happen in the United States. Unfortunately, we know better.

Accidents at U.S. chemical and industrial facilities are common. From 2000 to 2009, companies, employees and concerned citizens reported more than 338,000 accidents involving oil or chemicals to the National Response Center (NRC); that's more than 33,000 incidents every year. These accidents range from an oil sheen to a major disaster resulting in casualties.

The rare incidents of perilous toxic chemical releases have the potential to kill or seriously injure hundreds, if not thousands, of people. Each year, companies report more than 25,000 fires, explosions or spills involving hazardous chemicals. Annually, at least 1,000 of these events involve deaths, injuries, or evacuations.

One hundred and ten million Americans live in the shadow of catastrophic poison gas release from one of 300 chemical facilities. Oil refineries, chemical companies and water treatment facilities use and store large quantities of high hazard chemicals -- chlorine or sulfur dioxide gas, hydrofluoric acid, and anhydrous ammonia are the most common and the most dangerous -- putting thousands of people in the surrounding community at risk in the event of a release.

We've had more than enough reminders in the U.S. that accidents involving hazardous chemicals can cause fatalities, serious injuries, large-scale evacuations and significant property damage.

In August 2008, an explosion at the Bayer chemical facility in Institute, West Virginia killed two employees. An April 21, 2009, memo by the staff of the House Energy and Commerce Committee concluded that, had the Bayer accident involved a 37,000-pound tank of methyl isocyanate (MIC) located just 80 feet from the blast, the accident could have "eclipsed the 1984 [Bhopal] disaster in India." The Bayer plant in Institute is the only remaining U.S. facility that still uses and stores bulk quantities of MIC, the same gas that eventually killed 20,000 people at Union Carbide's Bhopal plant in India.

In October 2006, a hazardous chemical storage and treatment facility in Apex, North Carolina, ignited in flames, prompting the evacuation of more than 17,000 residents as chemical-laden yellow smoke threatened nearby residents. Fortunately, light rain and low winds suppressed the chemical cloud and gave residents enough time to safely evacuate the area.

In March 2005, multiple chemical explosions at the BP oil refinery in Texas City, Texas, killed 15 employees and injured many more, leading to a record $50 million fine for safety violations at the plant.

Safer, more secure chemical processes already exist that can replace virtually all of these hazards. Hundreds of U.S. chemical facilities -- from drinking water treatment plants to oil refineries -- are already using safer chemicals or processes proving that we don't have to put communities at unnecessary risk.

In March, Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee Chair Joseph Lieberman (CT) called the use of safer chemicals or processes "the only foolproof way to defeat a terrorist determined to strike a chemical facility."

In November 2009, the House of Representatives passed the Chemical and Water Security Act of 2009 (H.R. 2868), which will require thousands of facilities where a toxic release endangers the surrounding community to assess their ability to "reduce the consequences of a terrorist attack" by switching to safer alternative chemicals or processes.

Unfortunately, the Senate may end another year without taking action on this common-sense legislation. While Senator Frank Lautenberg has introduced a Senate version of this important chemical safety measure, the Secure Chemical Facilities Act and the Secure Water Facilities Act (PDF), there has not yet been significant committee or floor action.

This legislation has the support of a growing coalition of labor, community, public health, first responder and environmental groups (PDF) who all recognize that the most commonsense way to prevent catastrophic consequences of an attack or accident to is to use and store less hazardous chemicals in the first place.

How many times do we need to be reminded that accidents happen before Congress brings this important protection for America's communities to the president's desk?