Ex-EPA Head Urges Sealing Gaps in Chemical Security Regulations

Bush-era Environmental Protection Agency head Christine Whitman has called on her latest successor to address gaps in U.S. chemical security regulations "before a tragedy of historical proportions occurs," the Center for Public Integrity reported on Sunday (see GSN, April 4).

The environmental agency should use its power to deal with vulnerabilities left by "extremely limited" Homeland Security Department regulations, Whitman stated in an early April letter to current EPA chief Lisa Jackson. The letter was acquired by the Center for Public Integrity.

Current federal regulations prevent the Homeland Security Department from mandating the chemical sector implement particular actions aimed at halting an unintentional or deliberate release of poisonous chemical materials into the environment. 

Existing regulations do not cover "thousands of chemical facilities, including all water treatment plants and hundreds of other potentially high-risk facilities such as refineries located on navigable waters," Whitman said in the letter.

The Clean Air Act, however, grants the environmental agency the authority to demand "chemical facilities handling the most dangerous chemicals to prevent potentially catastrophic releases to surrounding communities," Whitman wrote.

"Facilities with the largest quantities" of industrial chemicals "should assess their operations to identify safer cost-effective processes that will reduce or eliminate hazards in the event of a terrorist attack or accident," according to Whitman, who led the agency from 2001 to 2003. "This has never been required and today hundreds of these facilities continue to put millions of Americans at risk."

There are presently 4,458 chemical sites in the country that pose a major threat, according to Homeland Security figures.

In March, the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council similarly advised Jackson to employ the Clean Air Act to override "fatal flaws" in existing federal regulations.

An EPA spokeswoman would not comment on the matter (Jim Morris, Center for Public Integrity, April 15).

April 17, 2012