A petrochemical fire (one related to the chemicals used in processing petroleum and natural gas) burned at a storage facility outside of Texas last March. As the Washington Post reports, polluted water and waste are still being cleaned three months later. The fire and delayed cleanup call into question hazardous waste disposal policy: many companies and facilities aren’t following proper procedures. <Read more>
Last week, the Chicago Tribune ran a series of articles that uncovered a devious relationship between the tobacco and chemical industries. It’s hard not to be outraged – no matter how cynical you might be – by the tactics used by the chemical companies that made flame retardant products to convince the American public that furniture needed to be treated with chemicals to protect life and property in the event of household fires. This 4-part series, titled “Playing with Fire,” makes clear the calculated efforts of this segment of the chemical industry to dupe the American public.
The first article in the series lays the background to this extraordinary expose. “These powerful industries distorted science in ways that overstated the benefits of the chemicals, created a phony consumer watchdog group that stoked the fear of fire and helped organize and steer an association of top fire officials that spent more than half a decade campaigning for their cause.”
The source of the information used in this series was internal memos, speeches, strategic plans, correspondence and other materials among more than 13 million documents made public after the tobacco companies settled lawsuits related to health claims brought by victims. These documents also reveal the influential role that Big Tobacco played in the extensive use of toxic chemicals in American furniture.
According to the Tribune series, this relationship began when Big Tobacco came under attack when smoldering cigarettes sparked fires leading to deaths (see Part 2 in the series). One choice facing the tobacco companies was to make a fire-safe cigarette that was less likely to start a fire. But the industry insisted that they couldn’t make a fire resistant cigarette that would still attract smokers. Instead, they shifted attention to the furniture (ands away from cigarettes) and promoted fame retardant couches and chairs. To achieve this goal, Big Tobacco poured millions of dollars into an “aggressive and cunning campaign to ‘neutralize’ firefighting organizations and persuade these far more trusted groups to adopt tobacco’s cause as their own.”
Part 3, “Distorting Science,” describes how the makers of flame retardant chemicals manipulated research findings to promote their products and down play health risks. The article tells us that “the industry has twisted research results, ignored findings that run counter to its aims and passed off biased, industry funded reports as rigorous science.” There was also a prominent burn doctor speaking in support of flame retardants as part of a campaign of deception and distortion on the efficacy of these chemicals.
Lastly, Part 4 describes the pathetic efforts by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, whose mission is to safeguard America’s health and environment, which allowed generation after generation of flame retardants onto the market without rigorously evaluating the health risks.
This series makes it clear that fire retardant materials used over the years are not effective and some pose serious health risks. They have been linked to cancer, neurological deficits, developmental problems and impaired fertility. Lots of household furniture is full of these chemicals. Worse, they escape from the furniture and settle in dust that is particularly dangerous for infants who crawl and play on the floor constantly putting things in their mouths.
If ever you had doubts about the lengths that big business will go to deceive and “pitch” the public, including politicians and bureaucrats, look no further than this series. It‘s an education in corporate behavior gone awry.
An explosion and raging fire at the Westlake PVC plant rocked Geismar, Louisiana a few weeks ago, sending a billowing cloud of toxic vinyl
[fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”]
chloride and hydrochloric acid through the community. The accident forced area residents and plant workers to shelter in place for several hours, shut roads, and even led to the closure of a 45-mile section of the Mississippi River.
The accident took place just one week before the Vinyl Institute was in NYC arguing PVC was perfectly safe. For some reason, they forgot to mention in their testimony that one of their plants had just exploded.
Westlake Vinyls makes 550 million pounds of vinyl chloride monomer and 60 million pounds of PVC a year. The company reports this is used to make PVC pipe, pipe fittings, vinyl sidings, bottles, flexible and rigid film and sheeting used for packaging, credit cards and wall coverings.
Check out this local TV news report (and see another at the bottom) on the accident:
“Even after the fire was out, a large white cloud could be seen still billowing from the plant.”
According to Westlake own reports to the EPA, its plant puts 589,558 people at risk due to the bulk use and storage of chlorine. An accident involving this chemical could potentially impact an area up to 25.00 miles downwind of the plant.
A History of Environmental Injustice
Low income and communities of color live downwind of the Westlake PVC plant. According to census data, 52.83% of people living within 3 miles of the facility are people of color. 445 people that live within 3 miles of the plant are below the poverty level.
This isn’t first time the plant has had an accident in recent years. On July 8 2010, over 900 pounds of vinyl chloride as well as other chemicals were released during another accident.
A number of other significant incidents and violations that have taken place at this location over the past twenty years, particularly when it was owned operated by Borden Chemicals and Plastics. This has been well documented in theUnited Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice report, From plantations to plants: Report of the Emergency National Commission of Environmental and Economic Justice in St. James Parish, Louisiana, which found:
“In March 1998, Borden Chemicals and Plastics and the federal government reached a settlement under which Borden would pay a $3.6 million penalty and clean up groundwater pollution at its plant in Geismar. The fine was described by a U.S. Attorney as “the largest ever for hazardous-waste law violations in Louisiana.” The settlement ended a case in which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency claimed Borden failed to investigate and clean up contamination at its site, failed to report toxic spills, and ran an incinerator without the proper license. Borden said in a news release that the penalty is “less than 1 percent of the $800 million judgment sought by the government.”
On December 24, 1997, a 500,000-gallon storage tank at Borden Chemicals & Plastics in Ascension Parish, Louisiana blew off its top “with a detonation heard for miles around, forcing the closure of Louisiana Route 1 and the voluntary evacuation of some neighbors.” Over a year before (August 22, 1996), equipment failure during the restart of Borden’s facility caused 8,000 pounds of “hazardous materials” to be released.”
In addition, Borden was charged in 1994 with shipping over 300, 000 pounds of hazardous waste to South Africa without notifying the US EPA, as required by law.
The Borden-Westlake-Formosa-Explosion Connection
The Westlake plant that exploded used to be operated by Borden. Borden also used to operate a chemical plant in Illiopolis, IL which was later taken over by Formosa Plastics. Interestingly, there was also a major chemical explosion and fire at this plant in Illiopolis a few years ago, which acclaimed author Sandra Steingraber has written about.
This explosion sent a plume of toxic smoke for miles around surrounding communities. Five workers were killed, four towns were evacuated, several highways closed, a no-fly zone declared, and three hundred firefighters from twenty-seven surrounding communities battled the flames for three days.
Did the Westlake Plant Release Deadly Dioxin?
Perhaps even more importantly, we’re very concerned that the fire and explosion sent a plume of toxic dioxin into communities and waterbodies downwind and downstream. Given that large quantities of highly toxic chlorinated chemicals burned for numerous hours, under uncontrolled conditions, you can bet dioxins and furans were released.
The question is – will EPA and the state DEQ launch an investigation?
Will they sample communities downwind for dioxin contamination?
As we ponder that, here’s another video on the accident: