Sunday, April 29, 2007

New Chemical Plant Regulations

Earlier this month new regulations have been drawn up concerning chemical plants in the US. But these regulations were not drawn up by the US Environmental Protection Agency, but by the Department of Homeland Security.

The regulations are designed to reduce risk from attacks against chemical plants. The government can fine or even close plants which do not comply with the regulations. The regulations are specifically aimed at securing the outside of the facility, controlling access, and preventing sabotage.

I find that these regulations are rather interesting in that the Bush administration has done very little to regulate chemicals which are released to the environment from chemical plants or other facilities. These releases include intentional discharges of wastes, improperly treated waste streams, discharge of pollutants to the air through stacks, evaporation of volatile compounds from spills, and leaching from landfills (both domestic and hazardous). Also important is exposure of workers to toxic fumes, insufficient protective gear, improper handling of chemicals, and poor chemical management.

But of course, we must protect ourselves from "terrorists" (sarc meter on high!).

The importance here is perceived versus real risk. Bruce Schneier, a computer security expert, has written much on this topic. The risk from a spill or other release of toxic chemicals (whether accidental or intentional) is much greater then the risk of a terrorist attack. We should be protecting the public health by correct environmental and safety regulations, not through anti-terrorism legislation drawn up by homeland security "experts".

It is also interesting to note that, unlike the US, the European Union has new regulations (called REACH) which does address the real issues of hazardous chemicals (especially testing and substitution). But the US has criticized them for interfering with "free trade" (see this story).

One thing worries me on a global scale. Around the world there has been the rhetoric of anti-terrorism to justify many actions, including human rights violations. Will other countries follow the US lead on chemical plants, while ignoring the sometimes major environmental problems plaguing their countries?

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