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The Push for Safer Chemicals

MANY SECURITY PROFESSIONALS are leery of environmentalists, viewing them as at best a nuisance and at worst a possible threat. In recent years, however, members of both camps have found common ground on an emerging issue: use of inherently safer technologies (ISTs) to reduce or remove the risks that arise from manufacturing and transporting hazardous chemicals.

ISTs often involve substituting a less hazardous chemical in a process, such as water purification, in which use of ozone or specific types of radiation can replace dangerous chlorine gas, which is used in vast quantities nationwide for both wastewater treatment and purification of drinking water supplies. ISTs can, however, simply involve modified chemical processes, including reduced volumes of hazardous chemicals.

Use of ISTs has grown in the past decade, driven not only by the need to mitigate risk, but also by the fact that ISTs help operators avoid the heavy government regulation brought on by use of hazardous chemicals.

Though the IST concept has been around for several years (See “New Chemical Solutions” by Matthew Harwood, August 2007), it entered the mainstream late last year when The Clorox Company announced plans for a shift to ISTs in the manufacture of its namesake bleach. Household bleach does not contain pure chlorine, but is instead a solution of sodium hypochlorite, which is manufactured from chlorine. Clorox currently purchases chlorine gas, which is then shipped to its own plants for processing into sodium hypochlorite. Over the next three years, Clorox will phase out processing and simply buy sodium hypochlorite for shipment to its plants.

Sodium hypochlorite is caustic, but it is shipped in concentrated liquid solution. Chlorine is shipped primarily by rail as a compressed gas. A sodium hypochlorite spill could be contained and mitigated with relative ease compared to a chlorine release, which can be deadly, as illustrated by the 2005 rail accident in Graniteville, South Carolina. The incident killed nine and injured at least 250, spurring both new rail regulations and increased calls for a switch to ISTs.

While Clorox’s plan does not reduce total chlorine gas production, spokesman Dan Staublin explains that it will reduce risk by limiting the exposure of chlorine both in transit to and at company plants.

A 2008 analysis by the Center for American Progress (CAP)—a Washington, D.C., think tank that advocates the implementation of ISTs—estimated that seven of Clorox’s bleach plants placed a total of nearly 10 million people at risk from chlorine gas release. Staublin notes, however, that his company consumes only about 1 percent of the chlorine gas used each year in the United States. Thus, its overall impact on the country’s risk is minimal.

The question of whether federal regulators can mandate use of ISTs is a controversial issue this year on Capitol Hill. Last year, the House of Representatives passed legislation that would make federal Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards (CFATS) permanent, and it included a provision on ISTs.

The bill, now before the Senate, would require that chemical facilities handling certain chemicals above set volumes assess the feasibility of implementing “methods to reduce the consequences of a terrorist attack.”

The bill also grants regulators the authority to mandate implementation of ISTs based on those assessments if implementation would not affect the company’s bottom line. That authority would fall to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in most cases; in the case of drinking and wastewater treatment operations, it would fall to state regulatory authorities or the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The American Chemistry Council, which represents large chemical manufacturers, welcomes the bill’s assessment requirement, though it opposes giving regulators authority to mandate ISTs. Other chemical industry groups, including SOCMA, which represents smaller specialty chemical manufacturers, oppose both the regulatory authority and the assessment requirement, which critics argue would pose an undue burden on small operations.

All chemical stakeholders agree that heightened regulatory regimes, like CFATS, will spur a wider shift to ISTs within the sector. Thus, a mandate is not needed, they argue.

The move away from hazardous chemicals has been underway for years as evidenced by a 2006 CAP study of the EPA’s Risk Management Planning program, established in 1999. CAP found that the number of facilities subject to the program dropped by 544, at least 284 of which were due to a shift to ISTs. Of those 284, 106 said they switched to shed regulatory requirements, while 117 said they switched because of terrorism and other security concerns. Two-hundred and seventeen indicated that the move was related to traditional safety and the risk of accidental releases.

Reece Rushing of CAP, who contributed to the 2008 analysis, told Security Management that the House passed bill’s IST provision complements the incentive created by CFATS and strikes an appropriate balance. “This adds yet another incentive, and it also helps educate companies about considering safer alternatives,” Rushing says.

The matter is before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. The committee’s chairman Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-CT), offered legislation in 2006 requiring IST assessment, while ranking member Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) has opposed the requirement in the past.