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The explosion at the Big Spring, Texas, oil refinery this week underscores the importance of protecting communities from releases of highly toxic chemicals. The explosion at the Alon USA petroleum refinery injured four and closed schools, a local college and Interstate Highway 20, which passes by the refinery. The Big Spring explosion follows other recent chemical accidents, and once again raises the question of how best to protect public health in the event of a dangerous release of toxic chemicals.
The Alon refinery was highlighted in the 2005 U.S. PIRG report “Needless Risk” as one of fifty petroleum refineries nationwide using and storing hydrofluoric acid, a chemical of concern because of its toxicity and its propensity to form a toxic aerosol cloud when released. The remainder of the 148 refineries studied use safer alternatives such as sulfuric acid.
The House Homeland Security Committee is currently working to draft legislation addressing the serious issue of chemical plant security and the deliberate release of deadly chemicals. In 2006 the Committee passed bipartisan legislation (H.R. 5695) requiring chemical sources to evaluate the availability of safer technologies and chemicals to replace more dangerous chemicals.
The legislation encouraged chemical companies to switch to safer technologies and chemicals when available and cost effective, and was based on numerous recommendations from government experts. For example, the National Research Council
Safer alternatives to toxic chemicals can protect the public from both terrorist attacks and chemical accidents and are surprisingly widely available. According to report prepared for EPA, four toxic gases (chlorine gas, anhydrous ammonia, hydrogen fluoride and sulfur dioxide) account for 55 percent of the chemical processes that pose off-site consequences to surrounding communities. A recent U.S. PIRG report found that all four chemicals have readily available and proven safer alternatives that are cost effective. Reducing or eliminating the use of toxic chemicals in production processes also impacts the production, transport and disposal of these dangerous substances.
The House Homeland Security Committee will hold a hearing on its bill next Tuesday. U.S. PIRG urges them to pass the strongest bill possible to protect public health and safety. asserted that “[t]he most desirable solution to preventing chemical releases is to reduce or eliminate the hazard where possible, not to control it.” Safer alternatives would not only protect communities in the event of a terrorist attack, but they would also drastically reduce the dangers of chemical accidents.
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