Op-ed by SOPHIA MARTINEZ and RICHARD MOORE
If you could protect thousands of your family, friends, and neighbors from a possible toxic chemical disaster, would you do it?
A report recently released to the White House by an interagency working group consisting of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Labor, and the Department of Homeland Security recognized the real dangers from unsecured chemical plants posed to communities across the country. Unfortunately, the report offered very little to safeguard families from the risk of another chemical facility disaster.
The failure of thousands of chemical facilities, including facilities in New Mexico, to adopt safer chemicals and processes that are available and affordable creates constant danger for the people who live and work in the potential disaster zones.
These dangers are one hundred percent preventable: here in New Mexico, the Southside Wastewater Treatment Plant responded to public and government pressure by converting from highly volatile and toxic chlorine to a safer, ultraviolet disinfection system that protects 160,000 people from a possible disaster. This didn’t happen until the Mountainview and South Valley communities organized to address the risk posed by the wastewater treatment plant.
While solutions can be created when communities, agencies, and industries work together, this is at best a short-term fix that leaves a patchwork of danger across even the most engaged communities: Albuquerque still has nine schools located within a mile of other a high risk facilities, according to a new report, Who’s in Danger? Race, Poverty and Chemical Disasters, that finds that more than 134 million Americans live in chemical disaster vulnerability zones near 3,433 facilities that use highly hazardous chemicals. The children, elderly and adults in these communities are living, learning, working, and playing in a chemical soup. On top of this threat is the possibility of a toxic cloud of chemicals such as anhydrous ammonia, chlorine, sulfur dioxide or hydrogen fluoride—each of which can kill within minutes. Even low doses can result in respiratory, neurological and cardiovascular dysfunction.
We have a historic opportunity to prevent these disaster scenarios. As the president and federal agencies evaluate how to prevent chemical facility disasters, communities and workers have been speaking up to tell President Obama: it’s time to make sure we’re safe from the threat of another disaster like the one in West, Texas [the explosion of a fertilizer plant that stored large amounts of anhydrous ammonia]. How many more workers and community members have to die? As incidents continue to occur across the country, we are asking President Obama to take urgent action to truly prevent future disasters by requiring high risk facilities to switch to safer alternatives.
Sofia Martinez is the president of Concerned Citizens of Wagon Mound and Mora County.505-573-1904; firstname.lastname@example.org
Richard Moore is the coordinator of Los Jardines Institute (The Gardens Institute), Co-author of Who’s in Danger: Race, Poverty, and Chemical Disaster report. 505-301-0276 ; email@example.com