Supporting a Risky Water Policy

Supporting a Risky Water Policy

Logomasini Op Ed in The Washington Times
May 21, 2003

As <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />U.S. environmentalists push policies to phase out use of chlorine gas at water-treatment plants, humanitarians are lobbying for it. And UNICEF has been calling on coalition forces to get chlorine gas to Iraqi water treatment facilities before supplies there run out. Inadequate chlorination of drinking water could produce far more deaths than did the war. In fact, more than 25,000 people die every day in developing nations from waterborne diseases.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />

UNICEF's plea highlights a point that environmental activists ignore. Chlorination is one of the world's most important public health tools; it saves thousands of lives every day of the year. About 98 percent of U.S. water suppliers use some form of chlorination, preventing outbreaks of disease. When officials reduced its use in Peru in 1991, thousands of people died. Rather than seeking ways to phase chlorine out, the truly humanitarian policy seeks to expand its use. Yet environmental activists are supporting legislation—introduced by Sen. Jon Corzine, New Jersey Democrat, that seeks to mandate what environmentalists call "inherently safer technology," which the bill defines as phasing out or drastically reducing the use of chemicals. Key targets are chemicals necessary to provide food and water—chlorine, which cleans our water (and provides numerous other public health benefits) and anhydrous ammonia, which is used in fertilizers to grow our food.

They propose such policies in the name of preventing terrorist-produced releases from public and private industrial operations. But jeopardizing clean water and making food more expensive certainly won't make the world safer or healthier.

In any case, the concept of inherently safer technologies is pure silliness. We engage in "inherently unsafe" activities every day—driving, taking medicine, getting vaccines, and risking slipping in the shower—because of the tremendous benefits these activities bring.

Fortunately, President Bush and Sen. James Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican, are working to steer the chemical-security debate away from radical environmentalism and toward how to meet legitimate security needs. Mr. Inhofe is offering legislation that focuses on reducing the risks of chemical use and storage without banning vital products. It would mandate that plants conduct vulnerability assessments and then develop and implement plans to address those risks. Companies that do not comply will be subject to a $250,000 fine. While it is debatable that new mandates are the best approach, activists are clearly wrong when they suggest that Mr. Inhofe's bill doesn't include mandates and enforcement.

In addition, Mr. Inhofe's bill works to ensure that we don't repeat past security mishaps. It will bar the public release of industrial-plant security plans because the information could assist terrorists in planning attacks.

Environmental activists have cried foul at keeping this information private. They have a long history of working with the Environmental Protection Agency to publicize such information, hyping risks to scare the public into supporting additional radical environmental regulations.

In the past, they've lobbied for, and passed into law, government "right to know" policies, which they are now using in today's scare campaign to push the Corzine bill. Specifically, they cite an EPA study based on data generated under one of their "right to know" laws that mandated the public release of emergency planning information—information that the Justice Department and FBI say could assist terrorists in planning attacks.

This EPA study claims that the United States has 123 industrial plants that, if attacked, could each release enough chemicals to harm a million or more people. But this claim is bogus. The study is based on fictitious scenarios created to plan for emergencies based on "worst-case" assumptions that are not grounded in reality.

It assumes that every possible chemical container would be breached, releasing the maximum amount of chemicals, under the worst possible wind conditions, and that all safety and mitigation measures at the plant would fail. It's like concluding that millions of Americans are at risk every day from airplanes because hijackers could seize every commercial airplane in the air at once, on the busiest air travel day of the year, and crash every one of them into the nation's most populated buildings at their most vulnerable spots, when the buildings were fully populated and assuming that no one could evacuate the buildings.

If environmentalists were truly interested in security, they would back the Inhofe bill. But it appears that they have a different agenda, one that could place Americans at great risk.