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EarthTalk / Fertilizer plant disaster a cautionary tale

Published 3:36 pm, Thursday, May 9, 2013
  • This apartment complex in West, Texas, was destroyed when the nearby West Fertilizer Co. plant exploded. Fourteen people were killed and more than 160 were injured. Photo: Michael Ainsworth, Associated Press / Pool The Dallas Morning News
    This apartment complex in West, Texas, was destroyed when the nearby West Fertilizer Co. plant exploded. Fourteen people were killed and more than 160 were injured. Photo: Michael Ainsworth, Associated Press

 

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Dear EarthTalk: The recent explosion at a West, Texas fertilizer plant that killed many people really alarmed me. Places like this must exist near many communities around the country. How do I know if my own community might be at risk of a similar disaster?

Mary Cyr

Sarasota, Fla.

Many people may not realize that what happened April 17 in the town of West, Texas -- a fertilizer plant with an unreported large stockpile of explosive ammonium nitrate blew up, killing 14 and rendering hundreds of others injured and homeless -- could happen almost anywhere.

According to Greenpeace, one in three Americans could fall victim to a similar poison gas disaster by virtue of living near upwards of 12,000 plants that store and use highly toxic substances. Greenpeace has identified 483 U.S. facilities where 100,000 people or more would be at risk during a disaster. And one in five of those threatens areas with populations topping one million.

The group would like to see the Obama Administration create new regulations under the Clean Air Act that will require such facilities to prevent chemical disasters by switching to safer alternatives.

On the Greenpeace website, one can use an interactive map to determine whether they live in harms way of a potentially dangerous chemical plant. Each plant on the map is surrounded by a red circle marking its "vulnerability zone," which ranges from less than a mile to 25 miles out, depending on the type and extent of chemicals in use as well as local topography and weather patterns. "Anyone within this zone could potentially be impacted by a toxic chemical release," Greenpeace says. "Impacts could range from minor injury to fatality depending on the chemical involved and the extent of exposure."

(On the Greenpeace map, the nearest plant to Westport is the H. Krevit & Co. Inc. facility in New Haven, 27 miles away.)

Calls by the Department of Homeland Security and Environmental Protection Agency to require the use of safer chemical processes where feasible have fallen on deaf ears among Congressional Republicans loathe to require constituents to pay for costly environmental upgrades. But that could soon change: Senator Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., has introduced a bill that would make negligence regarding chemical reporting a federal crime with consequent harsh penalties.

CONTACT: Greenpeace chemical plant map, http://usactions.greenpeace.org/chemicals/map.

EarthTalk is by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to earthtalk@emagazine.com.