On November 15, a chemical leak at a DuPont plant in Texas killed four workers and seriously injured a fifth. The workers were responding to a leak of methyl mercaptan, a chemical used to make insecticides. The same chemical is also used in natural gas to add the rotten egg smell for leak detection.
The plant is in La Porte, Texas, 25 miles from Houston.
The methyl mercaptan that killed the DuPont workers drifted as far as 40 miles away, albeit at non-hazardous levels, where community members noticed the odor.
I asked Amanda Frank, of the Center for Effective Government, for more information about the La Porte plant. I was wondering specifically how many students go to school inside the “vulnerability zone” of this plant – the area that would be in danger in the case of a catastrophic leak or explosion. For the La Porte plant, that zone has a 25-mile radius (the zones differ depending on the chemicals used and stored at the facility). She told me,
“There are 580 schools with 349,660 students in the plant’s vulnerability zone.”
Large quantities of toxic chemicals are stored at thousands of factories, water treatment plants, oil refineries, and other industrial sites in our country. These chemicals carry risks to the workers and the surrounding communities – risks that are not adequately addressed by either the industries using them or the agencies regulating them.
Children are especially vulnerable to the unthinkable possibility of a chemical leak or explosion.
- One in three schoolchildren attends a school inside the vulnerability zone of a hazardous chemical facility; and
- More than 19 million children are at risk. The parents and teachers of these children are not provided information about the chemical security hazards and often have no idea their children attend school inside a vulnerability zone. (You can find out if your children go to school near a hazardous chemical facility here.)
And the risk of chemical disasters falls more heavily on the poor and communities of color, making this an environmental justice issue.
- People who live inside vulnerability zones are disproportionately African American or Latino and have higher rates of poverty than the U.S. as a whole. This unequal danger is sharply magnified in the “fenceline” areas nearest the facilities.
The La Porte, Texas, tragedy is just the latest in chemical facility disasters.
A fatal explosion in West, Texas, in 2013, killed 15 workers and destroyed three schools. In response, President Obama issued an executive order directing several federal agencies to review chemical safety regulations. As part of this process, EPA requested public input, and Moms Clean Air Force members joined with the Coalition to Prevent Chemical Disasters to deliver 110,000 comments demanding that disaster prevention policies be required across chemical plants and chemical storage facilities. We delivered these comments on October 29.
The American Chemistry Council, an industry group, has opposed reform of chemical safety regulation, calling instead for better enforcement of current laws and voluntary programs. Meanwhile, chemical facilities are not required to use (or even consider using) inherently safer technologies to protect workers and communities.
Center for Effective Government’s Amanda Frank points out how little we really know about the true risks of the La Porte DuPont plant and, by extension, the thousands of other facilities across the country that use and store dangerous amounts of toxic chemicals:
“This plant’s vulnerability zone is based off of its containers of hydrofluoric acid, rather than methyl mercaptan,…Facilities make vulnerability zone calculations based off of their largest single container of a reactive chemical rather than all of them combined.”
This means the official vulnerability zone does not even include the threat of methyl mercaptan, the chemical that killed four workers and drifted 40 miles.
With 580 schools in the official danger zone, we can be sure of one thing, though. As Frank says:
“The plant is putting lots of students at risk,…and now has had a fatal accident.”