The Next Accident Awaits
New York Times
28 January 2014
By Rafael Moure-Eraso
WASHINGTON — The United States is facing an industrial chemical
safety crisis. The horrifying chemical spill that recently
contaminated the drinking water of hundreds of thousands of people
in West Virginia is the latest in a relentless series of disasters
and near-misses across the country.
It is clear to me, as chairman of the independent federal agency
charged with investigating industrial chemical accidents, that
urgent steps are required to significantly improve the safety of
the nation’s chemical industry — an industry vital to our economy,
yet potentially dangerous to those who live near the thousands of
facilities that process or store hazardous chemicals.
Those facilities include ones like the Chevron refinery in
Richmond, Calif., where aging, corroding pipes resulted in a huge
fire in August 2012, and the fertilizer plant in West, Tex., where
stores of ammonium nitrate exploded last year and laid waste to a
large part of the town, killing more than a dozen people.
Sifting through chemical-plant rubble from catastrophic accidents
year after year, our board has long called on regulators to
require — and for industry to adopt — what is known as inherently
safer technology. By this, we mean using safer designs, equipment
and chemicals, minimizing the amounts of hazardous chemicals
stored and used, and modifying and simplifying processes to make
them as safe as practicable.
While there is now, at last, a strong current within industry to
adopt this safer technology as a best practice, many still oppose
any actual regulatory requirements, arguing they are too costly
and prescriptive. We can’t wait for corporations to volunteer,
because the accidents continue, often with devastating
What we need is comprehensive regulatory reform. But achieving
safety reforms is complicated and time-consuming. In the interim,
the Environmental Protection Agency should step in and use its
power under the Clean Air Act’s general duty clause to compel
chemical facilities to take steps to make their operations
inherently safer. The law assigns owners and operators of these
facilities a general duty to identify hazards, design and maintain
safe facilities and minimize the consequences of leaks. The E.P.A.
should follow up by adopting specific regulations to meet those
Twelve years ago, the E.P.A.’s administrator, Christine Todd
Whitman, proposed regulations that would have encouraged producers
and users of high-risk chemicals to find safer alternatives or
But her proposal stalled in the face of strong opposition from
American companies, which are already required to use safer
technologies and other risk reduction methods at their European
operations. (Insurance data indicate that losses from refinery
accidents, for instance, are at least three times lower in Europe
than in the United States.) In 2012, Ms. Whitman urged the agency
to use the Clean Air Act to require safer technology “before a
tragedy of historic proportions occurs.”
The E.P.A. said recently that it was considering such an approach.
The agency’s own National Environmental Justice Advisory Council
has urged it to issue new rules to reduce the “danger and imminent
threat” posed by chemical plants, manufacturing and transport.
Across the nation, an estimated 13,000 facilities store or process
chemicals in amounts hazardous enough to endanger the public,
according to the E.P.A.
But that estimate understates the dimensions of the problem. For
example, the West Virginia facility implicated in the recent
spill, which stored chemicals used in the coal industry, would not
fall under criteria used by the agency to come up with its
Consider how a requirement forcing safer practices and
technologies might have prevented the three accidents I’ve
The Chevron refinery would have been required to replace aging,
corroded pipes with safer corrosion-resistant material that almost
certainly would have prevented the rupture that endangered 19
workers caught in the initial vapor cloud, not to mention the
smoke plume that sent 15,000 Bay Area residents to hospitals. The
refinery industry accident rate overall is unacceptably high.
The agricultural chemical company in West, Tex., would have used
safer storage practices and safer fertilizer blends, and kept far
less ammonium nitrate on site. The lives of more than a dozen
firefighters and residents might have been spared, and the
widespread damage to homes, schools, a nursing home and other
structures would not have occurred.
And the decades-old chemical storage tank in West Virginia that
leaked as much as 10,000 gallons of chemicals used in coal
processing into the nearby Elk River, contaminating the water
supply of some 300,000 Charleston-area residents, would have been
moved and replaced by modern, anti-leak storage tanks and safer
After the West, Tex., explosion, President Obama issued an
executive order requiring federal agencies to review safety rules
at chemical facilities. I am strongly encouraged by the White
House leadership on this issue. The E.P.A. is working with other
agencies to comply. But in the meantime, the agency has the
authority to act now, on its own, to require inherently safer
design, equipment and processes that would go a long way toward
preventing more catastrophes.
Rafael Moure-Eraso is the chairman of the United States Chemical