Thursday, April 08, 2004

If Safety Was Voluntary, Only Volunteers Would Be Safe

Study Finds That Voluntary Safety Measures Don't Work

Talk to most industry executives and Bush political appointees these days and you'll find that they only have nice things to say about the virtues of Bush's OSHA and EPA, where alliances, compliance assistance and voluntary industry guidelines have ushered in a new era of peace, cooperation and good times. They'll dimly recall the bad old days of the distant past when those old fashioned, top down, command-and-control, inflexible, confrontational, one-size-fits-all regulations reigned and OSHA and EPA didn't see eye-to-eye on workplace and environmental "progress."

Well, it turns out that things may not be as rosy as the current in-crowd believes. U.S. PIRG released a report today that shows that voluntary measures may not be all that it was billed as.
Chemical facilities owned by companies enrolled in an industry-sponsored voluntary safety program have had more than 1,800 accidents per year since 1990, according to a new report released today by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

The U.S. PIRG report, "Irresponsible Care: How the Chemical Industry Fails to Protect the Public From Chemical Accidents," analyzes the history of accidents at the facilities that implement Responsible Care, a voluntary security code subscribed to by companies that are members of the American Chemistry Council, the largest industry lobbying organization and loudest opponent of mandatory safety standards. The report criticizes Bush Administration plans to address safety and security at chemical facilities by industry self-regulation.
US PIRG, and its NJPIRG, its New Jersey affiliate conducted the study. They found that
  • Facilities in New Jersey that are owned by ACC member companies have had 521 accidents since 1990, ranking the state 13th in the country.

  • BP, Dow, and DuPont nationally ranked first through third, respectively, for the most accidents at their facilities since 1990. Facilities owned by these companies across the nation had nearly one third of the accidents at all ACC member companies since 1990.

  • Between 1990 and 2003, there has been no downward trend in the number of accidents at facilities that have adopted Responsible Care.
"The safety record of ACC member companies since Responsible Care? began shows that voluntary measures just don't work," said Rick Engler, Director of the New Jersey Work Environment Council, an alliance of 70 labor and environmental organizations.
A major problem with the "Responsible Care?" brand to self-regulation is that it ignores the practice of "inherently safe production" which substitutes safer chemicals and processes wherever possible, thereby eliminating the possibility of serious consequences from an accident. The cocept of inherently safe production has become more urgent since 9/11 because of the terrorist threat to the nation's chemical facilities. The chemical industry and Bush administration are relying on voluntary Responsible Care guidelines to safeguard this country's chemical facilities. The report criticizes the federal government for relying on the chemical industy's responsible care security guidelines which focus on perimeter security, rather than substituting safer technologies. Newspaper articles and a recent 60 Minutes program have documented numerous security breaches.

The debate over chemical plant security has been raging almost since the day after 9/11. Senator Jon Corzine has introduced legislation for the past two years that would require industry to explore new safer technologies - less volatile chemicals, for example - and require their use where "practical." The Bush administration's favored bill would essentially relay on voluntary industry guidelines.

The PIRG report also focuses on efforts in New Jersey to rely on a voluntary system for securing chemical plants, which largely uses the industry-created Responsible Care security code in place of publicly developed standards for assuring security at chemical facilities. According to the report,
The "Memorandum of Agreement Concerning Domestic Security Preparedness" between New Jersey's Domestic Security Preparedness Task Force, the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), the American Chemistry Council, and the Chemistry Council of New Jersey was developed without public input and did not include any public interest, environmental, or labor participants. Both the DEP and the Attorney General have not made drafts of the agreement public, citing "homeland security concerns," despite the fact that the Agreement does not contain any information about particular facilities.

NJPIRG and WEC again urged the Governor to use his existing authority and to support new legislation to mandate that chemical facilities substitute safer chemicals and processes where feasible. The groups also expressed support for state and federal legislation proposed by State Senator Sweeney, US Senator Corzine (NJ) and Congressman Pallone (NJ) that would require facilities to adopt chemical security improvements.