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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Probable Prevention

Air Date: Week of

Hillel Gray, Policy Director of the National Environmental Law Center talks with host Steve Curwood about the production of toxic chemicals. He says in the United States an average of 19 chemical accidents happen every day. Gray wants the U.S. Government to do more to assess risks, better plan hazardous facilities, and, where necessary, stop production.


CURWOOD: Since the Bhopal accident in 1984, much has changed in the way hazardous substances are made and used here in the US. There are new emergency planning and response programs, new standards for disclosure of toxic releases, and occupational health and safety reviews of plants. But some activists say these measures aren't being enforced well enough, and that even if they were properly enforced they wouldn't be enough to protect the public from serious chemical accidents. The National Environmental Law Center has just completed a review of government and industry data on accident rates and storage of hazardous chemicals, and concludes that it could still happen here. Hillel Gray is the Center's policy director, and he's with us in the studio now. Thanks for joining us.

GRAY: Thank you very much, Steve.

CURWOOD: Now, the EPA says it has taken measures that will prevent accidents, and we haven't had any Bhopal-like accidents here. So why should we worry?

GRAY: There's a common myth that you often hear from experts, which is there's no cause for alarm. And far be it from any responsible group to ask the public to be alarmed without information. What we want to have is more information about what are the true risks to the public, and so far EPA's done a very poor job in ensuring that the public understands the risks associated with these hazardous materials being stored all over the United States. And the second problem that we have is a problem of mindset. That the same type of design approach occurs in the manufacturing plants here in the United States as did in Bhopal, which is that you add on systems like flares, scrubbers, sprinklers. Emergency response systems. And you call that prevention. And instead, what is needed is to change the approach to prevention so that companies actually reduce their use of these chemicals or change their production operations so that they're safer, and so that accidents cannot happen in the first place.

CURWOOD: But haven't in fact things gotten better over the last 10 years with the manufacture of chemicals?

GRAY: Well we see 2 areas of improvement. One is that there's a lot more regard for emergency response, like firefighting and cleanup. And the second thing you see is there is a lot more attention to safety systems. What we don't know today is whether there's actually been a reduction in the use and the production of hazardous materials over the last 10 years.

CURWOOD: Now, what's wrong with our current laws, let's say, for Institute, West Virginia? Are there currently laws, in your view, that are on the books now, that aren't being enforced, that would help in this area?

GRAY: Yes. There is considerable authority that EPA has under the Clean Air Act, and there are 2 types of things that they could do today. First of all, that they could require companies to go through a planning process to assess their technologies and the materials they use to make them safer and cleaner. And secondly, EPA could identify extremely high-risk, dangerous chemicals that are used in particular industrial sectors and require that those companies phase out the use of those materials.

CURWOOD: These kind of changes for industry cost money. They're very expensive. And how can you mandate these kinds of changes in ways that will be economically efficient for industry?

GRAY: There are 2 types of costs. There are the costs of making the innovation. And then there are all the costs of not making the innovation, of putting on all these response systems, putting on all these safety systems, and having at your disposal alarms and shelters and firefighting agencies and so on. That's a very expensive system to have to run. We can make a transition and have it be economically viable. If we change some of the incentives, if you had fees on some of the most costly chemicals, if you ensure that there are high insurance rates, when you force companies to really take into account all the costs of having an accident, then they will have internal incentives to change their technologies.

CURWOOD: EPA is in the process of making some rules under the Clean Air Act. What would you like them to do?

GRAY: The Sierra Club recently took EPA to court. In a settlement, EPA finally agreed to take into account these prevention issues in their regulation. Unfortunately, EPA at the same time is asking for an extension of time, and what we're asking for is faster action, because we do have serious risks in this country and we have a rate of 19 chemical accidents a day. I think what we do need to do after Bhopal is to seriously go after these companies and ask them, do you really need to use that material? Do you really need to produce that material? And do you need to do it quite the way you're doing it today? I think that our country did not adequately respond to Bhopal, and 10 years later it could happen here still.

CURWOOD: All right. Thank you very much. Hillel Gray is policy director for the National Environmental Law Center. Thank you, sir.

GRAY: Thank you very much.



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