You might think that everything would have changed for the chemicals industry on April 16, 1947. That was the day of the Texas City Disaster, the worst industrial accident in U.S. history. A ship loaded with ammonium nitrate — the same chemical that appears to have caused the disaster last month in West, Texas — exploded. The ship sparked a chain reaction of blasts at chemical facilities onshore, creating what a newsreel at the time called "a holocaust that baffles description."
Or you might think everything would have changed on Dec. 3, 1984. That was the day that the U.S.-owned Union Carbide pesticide plant on the edge of Bhopal, India, suddenly began to leak — spewing a cloud of deadly gas over the city. By all accounts, thousands of people died; the Indian government never made an accurate count. Union Carbide paid $470 million damages.
Or you might think the chemical industry would have been forced to reform after March 23, 2005, when an explosion at a BP refinery in Texas City killed 15 workers and injured 180 others, according to a federal report. A BP spokesman says the company paid $1.6 billion to compensate victims and their families.
Or change could have taken place after any of the hundreds of fatal accidents at chemical facilities in the past dozen years, according to the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, an independent federal agency, based on media reports.
For years, a loose network of environmental groups, public health organizations and members of Congress, both Democratic and Republican, has fought to require companies to try to redesign their chemical facilities, to make them safer. Engineers often call the approach "inherently safer" technology or design. But industry executives and their allies in Congress have blocked the proposals.
Christine Todd Whitman, a former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, says she was angry when she heard about the West fertilizer plant explosion in April. "It just made me so mad, you wanted to take Congress and shake it, and say, 'Listen, what more does it take for you to understand that we need some action here?' "
Whitman led the EPA for President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2003. "I'm a Republican; I'm leery of too much regulation," she says, "but there are times when you need it. There's a reason for some of this stuff."
Over the past few decades, government and industry have taken some steps to make chemical plants in the U.S. safer. For instance, Congress passed two landmark laws in the years after the Bhopal disaster. Together, they require plant owners to disclose exactly which dangerous chemicals they use at specific plants; estimate how many people would be at risk of getting killed or injured if there were an accident at the plant; and spell out what steps they are taking to prevent it.
But after terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, security specialists began to worry that those laws weren't strong enough.
Solutions Vs. Band-Aids
"Chemical plants are really pre-positioned weapons of mass destruction," says Charles Sam Faddis, a former CIA officer who ran the CIA team that searched for WMDs in Iraq after the U.S. invaded. They didn't find weapons of mass destruction there, but Faddis says he realized that if terrorists had attacked a U.S. chemical plant instead of the twin office towers, they might have caused a bigger disaster.
The chemical industry's own reports back then, filed under federal law, show there were hundreds of plants across the country where a single incident could potentially kill thousands of people. For instance, D.C. Water — Washington's water and sewer utility — reported that if tanks of chlorine gas ruptured at its Blue Plains wastewater treatment plant, a deadly cloud could reach the U.S. Capitol.
So, some Bush administration officials decided that there was a fundamental problem with the way the government regulates chemical plants. The laws tell chemical plant owners, in effect, that it's fine to use large amounts of deadly chemicals, even if the plant is next to a city — as long as the company protects them with measures such as strong tanks and fences. And in case there is an accident or a terrorist attack, the company needs to have an emergency action plan to protect the community.
Officials at the time, like Bob Bostock, EPA's homeland security adviser, said those aren't solutions but Band-Aids.
"It was the only thing that kept me up at night," Bostock says — the fear that terrorists would blow up a tank of chlorine or other toxic chemical and trigger a disaster in a major city.
Executives at some companies used the inherently safer design approach after Sept. 11 and reduced their use of dangerous chemicals. D.C. Water, for example, got rid of deadly chlorine gas only a few months after the attacks and started treating wastewater with safer methods.
Bostock and Whitman drafted a law in 2002 that would have required chemical facilities across the country to see if they, too, could use inherently safer design.
Bostock says they knew that every plant might not be able to eliminate or cut back on its use of the deadliest chemicals. At some facilities, it might be technically impossible or too expensive. But the draft legislation would have required executives to at least examine whether it could be done.
"If there was ever a successful attack on one of these facilities or even an accidental release," Bostock says, "the first question you would get asked as a policymaker is, 'You knew this was a problem. Why haven't you done anything about it?' "
Meanwhile, up on Capitol Hill, a separate bill calling for inherently safer technology sailed unanimously through a key Senate committee. Then everything screeched to a halt. Whitman and Bostock say top aides to President Bush told them the push for inherently safer design "was not going anywhere," as Bostock remembers. "It was dead." White House officials never publicly explained why.
Since then, a coalition of more than 100 public health, environmental and labor groups and security specialists has tried repeatedly to get Congress to reconsider. It tried in 2003, 2006, 2009 and again in 2010. But in each case, opponents managed to block the proposals.
Whitman attributes the defeats, in part, to pressure from the chemical industry. "There are very powerful influences, and in politics you always sort of trace that back to the money," Whitman says.
Campaign finance reports, collated by the Center for Responsive Politics on OpenSecrets.org, show that the petrochemicals industry has been one of the main funders for key members of Congress who have opposed inherently safer design. And lobbying reports, collated by the Sunlight Foundation, suggest that chemical industry trade groups have made the fight against bills requiring inherently safer technology one of their priorities.
The Industry Response
Industry spokesmen say petrochemicals are already one of the safest and most regulated industries. "We stand second to none as the chemical industry in trying to implement an appropriate focus on process safety and security," says Michael Walls, vice president of the American Chemistry Council, which represents most of the leading corporations from Dow and DuPont to Exxon Mobil and Chevron. The council has lobbied Congress for years to kill bills concerned with inherently safer technology. In fact, together with other industry groups, they have told Congress that companies should not even be required to consider whether it should be implemented.
On the face of it, the call for companies to switch to safer chemicals "does sound attractive," says Walls. "But the basic choice comes down to, do you mandate something like a review of inherently safer technology, or do you want to require its consideration at the right time for each particular facility? One of the questions here is, who decides? Who decides what is inherently safer in any particular case?"
Walls and other industry spokesmen, such as Kathy Mathers, vice president of The Fertilizer Institute, worry that federal regulators might tell chemical companies how to run their business.
"Agriculture knows agriculture," says Mathers. The institute represents companies that make and sell ammonium nitrate, among other chemicals, which may have caused the explosion last month in Texas and has caused some of the worst industrial accidents in history. "And certainly the regulators have their role in society. At this point we have not seen a version of an inherently safer technology bill that we would support."
That perspective puzzles Rafael Moure-Eraso, chairman of the main federal agency that investigates accidents at chemical facilities. "I was quite surprised that anyone would resist this concept, this concept of prevention," he says, sitting in his corner office at the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, not far from the White House. The CSB, whose members are appointed by the President, is currently investigating what caused last month's fatal explosion at the West Fertilizer facility in Texas.
Some of the CSB's official reports on chemical plant explosions recommend that the industry use inherently safer technology as one of the main strategies for preventing accidents in the first place — and limiting the damage when they do occur.
In fact, Moure-Eraso says he supports the idea of a law requiring plant owners to see if their plants can eliminate or reduce the need for dangerous chemicals. "You have to make a cost-benefit about what is more costly: to engage in a process to try to mitigate or avoid hazards; or deal with the families of the people who get killed, the destruction of an industry, the destruction of a community," Moure-Eraso says. "And I claim that it's a lot more expensive to deal with these catastrophic losses than what it will take to invest to prevent this to happen in the first place."
Advocates of inherently safer design wonder now where President Obama stands on this issue. Back when he was in the Senate, Obama co-sponsored a bill that would have required plants to consider inherently safer technology. And his administration supported the concept after he became president. But Rick Hind, legislative director of Greenpeace, says members of the coalition that has been campaigning for the approach are frustrated that Obama hasn't spoken out about it recently.
"We're very concerned," says Hind, "because we've been asking [the Obama administration] to look into this and to do something since 2011. And they said, 'Well, after the election maybe we'll do something.' And now, we're still waiting."
NPR asked White House officials where President Obama stands now on the issue of inherently safer technology. A spokesman sent this brief reply:
"Chemical plant safety is a high priority, and federal departments and agencies will continue to work within their authorities and with state officials to support the ongoing investigation and assess appropriate information that can help inform ongoing efforts to ensure chemical plant safety."
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
And I'm Melissa Block. Investigators in Texas yesterday said they're still trying to figure out what caused the deadly explosion last month at the West fertilizer company. The blast killed 14 people and destroyed dozens of homes and other buildings. The chemical industry's own reports show thousands of plants across the country where a single accident or terrorist attack could put an entire community at risk, even a city. Some government officials and public advocates have been fighting for decades to require companies to redesign their plants to make them safer.
But as NPR's Daniel Zwerdling reports, industry executives and their allies in Congress have blocked those proposals.
DANIEL ZWERDLING, BYLINE: You might think that everything would've changed for the chemicals industry on April 16th, 1947. They call it the Texas City disaster, the worst industrial accident in U.S. History.
(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Night and day, for three horrible days the inferno that almost blasted Texas City from the map rages unchecked and uncontrollable.
ZWERDLING: A ship loaded with ammonium nitrate exploded. That's the chemical that apparently caused the disaster last month in Texas. The ship triggered more explosions at chemical facilities onshore. More than 500 died. So you might think Congress would've forced industry to redesign the way they handle chemicals.
(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: In a little more than a square mile, explosion and fire create a Holocaust that baffles description.
ZWERDLING: Or you might think everything would've changed for the chemicals industry on December 3rd, 1984.
(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS CLIP)
PETER JENNINGS: Good evening. Tragedy in central India.
ZWERDLING: That was the Bhopal disaster caused by an American corporation. Here's ABC News.
(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS CLIP)
JENNINGS: The Union Carbide Pesticide plant on the edge of town suddenly began to leak. A huge cloud of suffocating poisonous gas carried on a...
ZWERDLING: Thousands of people died. Union Carbide paid almost half a billion dollars in damages. Or you might think the chemical industry really had to reform in 2005. Here's NBC.
(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Now to Texas and the huge explosion that rocked a BP refinery yesterday. Was this an incident that could've been avoided?
ZWERDLING: At least 15 people were killed and almost 200 injured. BP says they paid $1.6 billion to compensate victims and their families. Government statistics, based on press reports, show there have been hundreds of accidents at chemical facilities that have killed people in just the past dozen years. And Christine Todd Whitman says when she heard about the West explosion last month in Texas...
CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN: It just made me so mad and you wanted to take Congress and shake it and say, listen, what more does it take for you to understand that we need some action here?
ZWERDLING: Whitman ran EPA under President George W. Bush.
WHITMAN: I'm a Republican. I am leery of too much regulation, believe me, I understand it. But there are times when you need it. There's a reason for some of this stuff.
ZWERDLING: Over the past few decades, government and industry have taken steps to make chemical plants safer. For instance, Congress passed two landmark laws after the Bhopal disaster in the 1980s. They told industry, you have to tell the public which dangerous chemicals you're using. You have to tell how many people would be at risk of getting killed or injured if there's an accident at your plant. And what are you doing to prevent it?
But then came 9/11 and security specialists worried that those laws on chemical plants aren't strong enough.
SAM FADDIS: I mean, these things that we are talking about, chemical plants, are really prepositioned weapons of mass destruction.
ZWERDLING: Sam Faddis knows about weapons of mass destruction. He used to work for the CIA. And Faddis realized if terrorists had attacked a chemical facility instead of the World Trade Center, they could've caused a bigger disaster. The chemical industry's own reports back then showed there were hundreds of plants across the country where a single incident could potentially kill thousands of people.
For instance, the water treatment utility in Washington, D.C. reported that if their chlorine tanks ruptured, a deadly cloud could reach the U.S. capitol.
FADDIS: And as long as you got the wind blowing in the right direction - I mean, the right direction from the standpoint of a terrorist - that cloud is now going to drift into areas populated by literally millions of human beings.
ZWERDLING: So some officials in the Bush administration decided there's a fundamental problem with the way the government regulates chemical plants. The laws basically tell industry, it's fine if you use huge amounts of deadly chemicals, even if you're right next to a city. Just be sure you protect them with measures like strong tanks and fences. Bob Bostock said, those aren't solutions, they're Band-Aids.
BOB BOSTOCK: It was the only thing that kept me up at night.
ZWERDLING: Bostock was a top advisor to the head of EPA, Christine Todd Whitman. And they decided that one of the best ways to make chemical facilities safer is to change the way they operate so they don't need so many dangerous chemicals in the first place. Engineers often call the approach inherently safer design.
BOSTOCK: For a lot of these chemicals there are other chemicals that can be substituted that do not pose the same sort of effect if there was a breech.
ZWERDLING: And some companies did substitute other chemicals after 9/11. The waste water treatment plant in Washington, D.C. got rid of deadly chlorine gas within three months and they started treating water with safer methods. Bostock and Whitman drafted a law that would require companies across the country to see if they could use inherently safer design.
They said, look maybe every plant can't switch. It might be technically impossible or too expensive. But they said, the government should require executives to at least try to do it.
BOSTOCK: If there was ever a successful attack on one of these facilities or even an accidental release, the first question you would get asked as a policymaker is, you knew this was a problem, why haven't you done anything about it?
ZWERDLING: Meanwhile, back in 2002, a key Senate committee voted to support inherently safer technology unanimously. Then, suddenly everything screeched to a halt. President Bush's aides said, forget it. They didn't explain why publicly. And since then, public health groups and environmental groups and unions and Democrats and Republicans, they've all tried over and over again to get Congress to reconsider. They tried in 2003 and 2006 and 2009 and 2010.
Whitman says, here we've just seen the devastation in Texas. You'd think Congress would finally act.
WHITMAN: But there are very powerful influences and in politics you always sort of trace that back to the money.
ZWERDLING: And the money is coming from?
WHITMAN: I guess the money's coming from the industry.
ZWERDLING: And you can see where some of that money flows if you log onto OpenSecrets.org. This website is run by the Nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. They track campaign finance. And the site shows that the petrochemicals industry has funded key members of Congress who've opposed inherently safer design. And take just one of many examples. Type in the name Fred Upton from Michigan. Upton is the Republican chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. No bill on inherently safer design can go far without his support.
The page on Upton shows that the petrochemicals industry is one of the main industries that finance his campaign. Upton did not grant our request for an interview but a spokesman for the chemical industry did.
MICHAEL WALLS: You know, we stand second to none as the chemical industry in trying to implement an appropriate focus on process safety and security.
ZWERDLING: Michael Walls is vice president of the American Chemistry Council. They represent Dow, DuPont, Exxon Mobil, Chevron, most of the leading petrochemical firms. The Chemistry Council has lobbied congress for years to kill bills on inherently safer design. I asked Walls, as a layperson who got a C in chemistry, I have to say it sounds like a really attractive and totally common sense approach. You know, get chemical facilities to do everything they can to figure out, can we switch to different chemicals.
WALLS: Daniel, I'd agree with you, it does sound attractive. But the basic choice comes down to do you mandate something like a review of inherently safer technology or do you want to require its consideration at the right time for each particular facility? One of the questions here is, who decides? Who decides what is inherently safer in any particular case?
ZWERDLING: Walls says, there are already plenty of agencies that regulate the chemicals industry. Although, as the West fertilizer investigation suggests, they're not always paying close attention. I also talked to Kathy Mathers. She's vice president of the Fertilizer Institute. Their member companies make and sell ammonium nitrate, among other chemicals. That's the product that apparently caused the explosion last month in Texas. And it's caused some of the worst industrial accidents in history.
So it sounds like you're worried about federal regulators, somebody in some bureaucracy in Washington, making a decision that's well-intentioned but would affect the fertilizer industry and the food industry.
KATHY MATHERS: Well, agriculture knows agriculture. And certainly the regulators have their role in society. At this point, we have not seen a version of an inherently safer technology bill that we would support.
RAFAEL MOURE-ERASO: I was quite surprised that anybody will resist this concept, concept of prevention.
ZWERDLING: Rafael Moure-Eraso runs the Chemical Safety Board. That's the main federal agency that investigates accidents at chemical plants and then recommends how to prevent them. The board is investigating the Texas fertilizer explosion right now and Moure-Eraso recommends a new law. He says the federal government should require every chemical company to analyze whether they can use inherently safer design to get rid of dangerous chemicals.
MOURE-ERASO: You have to make a cost-benefit about what is more costly, to engage in a process to try to mitigate and avoid hazards or deal with the families of the people who get killed, the destruction of an industry, the destruction of a community? And I claim that it's a lot more expensive to deal with these catastrophic losses than what it will take to invest to prevent this to happen in the first place.
ZWERDLING: All this raises a question. Where is President Obama on this issue?
RICK HIND: That's our $64,000 question.
ZWERDLING: That's Rick Hind. He's legislative director of Greenpeace. Greenpeace is one of the leaders of the coalition's campaign for inherently safer technology. Obama co-sponsored a bill calling for it back when he was in the Senate. His administration backed the idea again after he became president, but...
HIND: We're very concerned because we've been asking for them to look into this and to do something since 2011 and they said, well, after the election, maybe we'll do something. And now, we're still waiting.
ZWERDLING: We asked the White House, where does the president stand on inherently safer design? A spokesman wouldn't say, but he sent us a statement that said, quote, "chemical plant safety is a high priority," unquote.
ERIN COLES: Well, right now, we're standing next to the baseball field and if you look right behind it, you can actually just touch the refinery.
ZWERDLING: That's a mother named Erin Coles(ph). She wishes President Obama would take action. She's taken me to Paulsboro High School. It's across the New Jersey border from Philadelphia. Her kids go here. In fact, two daughters are practicing track while the baseball team plays a game. And right beyond them, there's the PBF Energy Company refinery. It looms over the baseball diamond, metal towers, plumes of white smoke.
COLES: It almost looks like Cape Canaveral where you see the launch pads and things like that.
ZWERDLING: Coles has helped organize a community group to educate people about the potential dangers. The refinery's own reports show that it uses tons of hydrofluoric acid. They show that an accident could send a toxic cloud across an area with 3 million people.
COLES: I'm concerned that so many people live in a radius around the plant that depending on the wind direction and which way the plume goes from the refinery, it could fatal to them.
ZWERDLING: A recent study by the United Steel Workers concludes that the company could use inherently safer design and switch to safer chemicals. In fact, other refineries have already done that. I called PBF to find out why they don't switch, but they referred me to their industry trade group. A spokeswoman wrote that there are a wide variety of safety measures to prevent an accident at refineries like this one.
Of course, that's what some executives said about other plants before they exploded. Daniel Zwerdling, NPR News.
CORNISH: You can read more about the debate over chemical plant safety at our website, NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.