Leading the Center for Science and Democracy at UCS gives me a great opportunity to look for connections between events that sometimes may seem separate. Over the past few months I have watched with dismay and sadness as two explosions at large industrial plants tragically took lives and injured workers, nearby residents and first responders. I had an opportunity to visit the west Louisville, KY community of Rubbertown, where industrial facilities are located surrounded by residences. There too, tragedy has struck, as accidents and chronic impacts from the plants have impacted generations of residents.
I also followed with interest the policy discussion around a proposal for a new Chemical Safety Improvement Act in the Senate, initiated by the late Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey and Senator David Vitter of Louisiana. The connections here may be obvious. But then I also began following the discussion of a new trade agreement between the European Union and the United States, called the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. And new reports on campaign finance and spending on lobbying. How might these connect and what does that have to do with science and democracy?
The explosions in West, Texas and Geismar, Louisiana were horrific events and highlight the risks that those working in and living near chemical plants and major industrial facilities face. In my brief visit to Rubbertown I heard of elevated cancer and respiratory illness rates, and little acknowledgement or action from either industry or government to help “fenceline” residents close to the plants. As we drove through the area on the way to a community dinner, I noted railroad tanker cars parked on sidings in the community. I was told that the tankers were there long-term with unknown chemicals, no security and no apparent monitoring – this while we passed a set of cars parked next to an elementary school.
The federal Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act requires reporting of chemicals held at facilities to ensure that communities and critical first responders know what they are dealing with in times of emergency. But compliance has been spotty at best. Recent investigations have shown that, since 2005, accidents at facilities storing dangerous chemicals have resulted in approximately 60 deaths, more than 1,300 injuries and more than $1.6 billion in onsite and off-site damages, according to a 2013 EPA report to Congress. And given the lax reporting of dangerous chemicals held on-site, that is almost certainly a gross underestimate.
The proposed Chemical Safety Improvement Act recognizes that the current system for chemical safety is broken. As with all legislation, this bi-partisan proposal is full of compromises. If and when legislation moves forward, at least these three issues need to be brought in more strongly: 1. The need to provide greater protections (and a louder voice!) for vulnerable communities and populations such as Rubbertown, the children and the elderly; 2. Preserving as much authority as possible for states to protect and inform their citizens about hazardous chemicals, and 3. The importance of motivating the use of alternative safer chemicals as extensively as possible.
If negotiating a trade agreement with the EU seems on its face a good idea for the economy, consider this – such agreements work to remove “barriers” to trade, such as regulations on industry in one country that are weaker or absent in the other. Such negotiations can be a recipe for removing protections designed to protect against harmful chemicals in the name of “removing barriers.” Given the current state of chemical safety in the US, it is hard to view that effort favorably.
And finally, to campaign finance and the role of money in politics. The question we should all ask is why are chemical safety rules and their implementation so weak? We certainly have the scientific capability to identify the risks and monitor the implementation of safeguards. A new report from the Sunlight Foundation shows the increasing concentration of political funding from fewer and fewer donors. According to their analysis, in 2012, 28 percent of all disclosed political contributions were made by only 31,385 people. That’s 1% of 1% giving 1.7 billion dollars to candidates and political action committees. So if political funding is “speech” most of us don’t have a voice. But lobbyists do. The chemical industry spent a third of a billion dollars on lobbying between 2005 and 2012.
Chemistry and chemical safety is inherently based on science. The public policies that protect us from harmful chemicals must be science-based and stronger. And democracy should not be about who has the most money, or can buy the most access to shape those policies. It is about people, not dollars.