The National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC), a federal advisory committee to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently sent a letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson urging her to use EPA’s authority under the “General Duty Clause” of the 1990 Clean Air Act (CAA) – also known as the Bhopal clause – to require covered chemical facilities to prevent, where feasible, catastrophic chemical releases.

The letter goes on to say that “Implementing the Clean Air Act’s prevention authority will not only eliminate accidental hazards but also will address fatal flaws in the current chemical security law administered by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Presently, DHS is prohibited from requiring the use of safer chemical processes at facilities. These gaps are particularly threatening to low-income and tribal communities and communities of color because they frequently reside near waste water treatment plants, refineries, and port facilities which are exempted under a 2006 Congressional statute that allows thousands of potentially high-risk facilities such as these from being required to use safer chemicals.”

The NEJAC letter echoes efforts by Greenpeace and a broad coaliton to address chemical security issues at industrial sites across the country. Last June 104 labor, environmental, public health and civil rights groups sent a letter to President Obama urging him to use the CAA’s general duty clause to prevent chemical disasters.

There are 483 chemical plants in the U.S. that each put 100,000 or more Americans at risk of a Bhopal-like disaster and several thousand other plants that use and store poison gases such as chlorine and anhydrous ammonia on their property, As stated in the NEJAC letter, these plants are often located near residential areas in low-income and tribal communities and communities of color. Some communities no longer face these risks because the plants have switched to safer chemical processes. For example, the waste water treatment plant in Washington, DC converted from deadly chlorine gas to harmless liquid bleach 90 days after the 9/11 attacks.

The Obama Administration has repeatedly asked Congress to remove these risks by requiring the use of safer chemical processes where feasible. Unfortunately, Republicans in Congress have blocked these efforts and there is little hope that legislation will move forward in an election year. Alternatively, President Obama can use the general duty clause of the Clean Air Act to require companies to design and operate their facilities in a way that prevents the catastrophic release of poison gasses. Sign the Greenpeace petition urging President Obama to use his authority to prevent chemical disasters. For more information.