Congress to date has failed to set requirements under the general-duty clause to reduce risks of toxic releases from industrial facilities. photo: redcrayon, all rights reserved

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil drilling disaster, Louisiana’s two U.S. Senators, Mary Landrieu, a Democrat, and David Vitter, a Republican, did not call for more research.  Like most rational people, they called for safety measures to mitigate the potentially devastating impact of future disasters.

You might think it was a no-brainer, then, that they’d eagerly back a proposal to step up safety measures at industrial facilities such as oil refineries and water treatment plants—in Louisiana alone there are more than 100. Instead, they oppose this common sense proposal.

The proposal flows from a Congressional mandate given to the Environmental Protection Agency in the Clean Air Act. Known as the act’s “general duty clause,” it requires operators of all industrial facilities to minimize the consequences of an accidental release of a highly toxic substance, such as chlorine gas or flammable materials.

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the general-duty clause gained the attention of federal lawmakers as a starting point for requiring safety measures to prevent a dangerous chemical release caused by an intentional act of violence or terrorism. After all, chlorine gas, a chemical commonly used in water treatment, can be dangerous as far as 25 miles from a typical municipal treatment plant. Clorox, a big manufacturer, responded voluntarily by developing a safer chemical process than chlorine gas, but no federal legislation passed mandating its use or the implementation of other measures to reduce potentially catastrophic industrial hazards.

It’s heartening to see that diverse constituencies, including Christine Todd Whitman, the former governor of New Jersey and George W. Bush EPA chief, have begun calling on the EPA to do what Congress has not: set requirements under the general-duty clause to reduce risks of this kind at industrial facilities.

Unfortunately, when it comes to Louisiana’s two senators, the proverbial ounce of prevention appears to be considerably outweighed by the nearly $300,000 that shows major oil and chemical companies have contributed to the campaign coffers of Landrieu and Vitter.  They recently wrote a letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson demanding that she take no action on the proposal to prevent an industrial disaster. Their argument:  such action would be premature because “more research is needed.” Not surprisingly, the Louisiana Chemical Association, a lobbying group, supported the letter by Vitter and Landrieu.

How much more research is needed to know that there are at least 105 industrial facilities in Louisiana and nearly 2,600 industrial facilities in the rest of the country that each put more than 10,000 people in the surrounding area at risk of death or serious injury from the release of a dangerous substance?  In other countries, requiring safety measures at industrial facilities is viewed as a way of protecting the basic human rights to life and health.

If the lessons from Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil drilling disaster are not enough for our senators to learn from, perhaps they can glean from Hurricane Isaac the real dangers of chemical and oil spills occurring at industrial facilities that have inadequate safety precautions. Their opposition to ensuring safer industrial operations perpetuates our vulnerability to simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time—be it a school, home, place of worship, workplace, or highway—when a catastrophic release from an industrial facility occurs.

For the sake of the people who work at industrial facilities and those who live nearby, President Obama and the EPA should move forward with developing safety standards that prevent or minimize the dangers of a catastrophic chemical release at an industrial facility.

Monique Harden is the co-director and attorney for Advocates for Environmental Human Rights. She is the author of numerous reports and papers in the field and has helped community organizations win legal victories over toxic industrial facilities and other sources of environmental hazards.