by James J. Devine
The deadly blast at the West Fertilizer Co. in West, Texas, has brought national attention to how shoddy regulation and weak law enforcement make it possible for people to live and work near potentially deadly chemical plants.
But those issues arose here in 1980, when the Chemical Control Corporation explosion in Elizabethport rocketed barrels skyward and sent toxic fumes into the air.
Just as a school, nursing home and houses were allowed within close proximity of the Texas fertilizer plant that stored and used hazardous chemicals, Garden State residents long ago found they weren’t protected by regulations and they were largely unaware of the risks.
Despite those and other warning shots, millions of Americans remain blissfully ignorant about threats that could snuff out life in minutes and you are probably among them.
In one New Jersey company’s worst-case scenario filed with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a cloud of chlorine gas could spread 14 miles from the plant – as far away as Elizabeth, Woodbridge or Westfield.
About 15 million people could be in the danger zone. As many as 17,500 could die.
According to the Kuehne Chemical Company’s own reports to the EPA, its South Kearny facility stores 2 million pounds of chlorine gas, which puts more people at risk of a chemical disaster than any other plant in the U.S.
Kuehne is a member’s of the chemical industry largest lobbying association, the American Chemistry Council (ACC).
The ACC opposed conditional requirements to use safer chemical process in the legislation (H.R. 2868) that passed the U.S. House of Representatives in November, 2009.
On May 13, 2010, environmental activists from Greenpeace inspected the facility and concluded that no amount of fencing, cameras, or gatekeepers can eliminate the inherent danger of this facility.
The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration last year imposed fines of $139,000 on Kuehne, citing eight repeat and 13 serious violations at its Delaware facility.
“By disregarding OSHA’s standards, this company is leaving its employees vulnerable to hazards that could cause serious injury or even death,” said Domenick Salvatore, director of OSHA’s Delaware Office. “It is imperative that Kuehne Chemical Co. address the cited violations immediately.”
In November 2008, OSHA assessed penalties of $48,650 for 33 worker safety and health violations at the Kearny plant, including lapses that could have led to a toxic chlorine release into surrounding communities.
Your life could end in minutes as a result of a massive explosion or deadly gas leak because you live within range of largely unguarded, poorly regulated toxic time bombs.
Gov. Chris Christie and other Republicans often cry and complain about regulations stifling the economy but it is time to recognize the greed that deprives working Americans a decent wage and a single payer health care system is the same greed that places our families at risk.
It is high time Democrats stood up more forcefully to protect people and restore the values on which America was founded.
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