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Environmental News

"EARTH TALK"

From the Editors of E / The Environmental Magazine

THIS WEEK'S COLUMN

Dear EarthTalk: The recent explosion at a West, Texas fertilizer plant that killed many people really alarmed me. Places like this must exist near many communities around the country. How do I know if my own community might be at risk of a similar disaster? – Mary Cyr, Sarasota, FL

Many people may not realize that what happened on April 17, 2013 in the town of West, Texas -- a fertilizer plant with an unreported large stockpile of explosive ammonium nitrate blew up, killing 14 and rendering hundreds of others injured and homeless -- could happen almost anywhere.

Photo © Shane Torgerson

Many people may not realize that what happened on April 17, 2013 in the town of West, Texas—a fertilizer plant with an unreported large stockpile of explosive ammonium nitrate blew up, killing 14 and rendering hundreds of others injured and homeless—could happen almost anywhere.

According to Greenpeace, one in three Americans could fall victim to a similar poison gas disaster by virtue of living near upwards of 12,000 plants that store and use highly toxic substances. “A chemical disaster at just one of these facilities could kill or injure thousands of people with acute poisoning,” the group reports. Greenpeace has identified 483 U.S. facilities where 100,000 people or more would be at risk during a disaster. And one in five of those threatens areas with populations topping one million.

“Even though chemical plant safeguards fail every week, the chemical industry has largely refused to make their plants safer and more secure,” says Greenpeace. “Congress even amended the Clean Air Act in 1990 to try and address this problem, but the amendment has gone largely unused.” The group would like to see the Obama Administration create new regulations under the Clean Air Act that will require such facilities to prevent chemical disasters by switching to safer alternatives.

On the Greenpeace website, one can use an interactive map to determine whether they live in harms way of a potentially dangerous chemical plant. Each plant on the map is surrounded by a red circle marking its “vulnerability zone,” which ranges from less than a mile to 25 miles out, depending on the type and extent of chemicals in use as well as local topography and weather patterns. “Anyone within this zone could potentially be impacted by a toxic chemical release,” adds Greenpeace. “Impacts could range from minor injury to fatality depending on the chemical involved and the extent of exposure.”

Calls by the Department of Homeland Security and Environmental Protection Agency to require the use of safer chemical processes where feasible have fallen on deaf ears among Congressional Republicans loathe to require constituents to pay for costly environmental upgrades. But that could soon change: Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) has introduced a bill that would make negligence regarding chemical reporting a federal crime with consequent harsh penalties. “The chemical reporting laws on the books today are toothless and do little to help us protect communities from chemical explosions,” says Lautenberg. “Facilities that break the reporting rules today essentially get away with just a warning.”

“The good news is that there are many cost-effective, safer chemical processes already in use that eliminate these risks without sacrificing jobs,” says Greenpeace, adding that more than 500 plants have voluntarily switched to safer alternatives over the last decade. The group wants President Obama to invoke executive privilege to tighten regulations on chemical plants that have not done so. Readers can sign on to the group’s online petition calling on the White House to require companies to design and operate chemical facilities in a way that prevents the catastrophic release of poison gases.

CONTACT: Greenpeace chemical plant map.

 
A NEW SET OF ANSWERS IS FEATURED EACH WEEK!

 

Dear EarthTalk: I heard that a number of beer brewing companies have banded together to support the Clean Water Act. Can you enlighten? -- Mitch Jenkins, Cincinnati, OH

Whether beer brewers are creating ales, pilsners, porters, wits or stouts, one ingredient must go into every batch: clean water. A new campaign, Brewers for Clean Water, aims to leverage the economic growth of the craft brewing sector into a powerful voice for clean water protection in the U.S.

Photo © iStockPhoto

In April 2013 the non-profit Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) brought together two dozen nationally respected craft beer brewers to launch the Brewers for Clean Water Campaign, which aims to leverage the economic growth of the craft brewing sector into a powerful voice for bolstering clean water protection in the United States.

“Whether brewers are creating ales, pilsners, porters, wits or stouts, one ingredient must go into every batch: clean water,” says Karen Hobbs, a senior policy analyst at NRDC. “Craft brewers need clean water to make great beer.”

While hops, malt and the brewing process itself are also clearly important, water just may be the secret ingredient that gives a specific beer its distinctive flavor. “Beer is about 90 percent water, making local water supply quality and its characteristics, such as pH and mineral content, critical to beer brewing and the flavor of many classic brews,” reports NRDC. “For example, the unusually soft water of Pilsen, from the Czech Republic, helped create what is considered the original gold standard of pilsner beers. The clarity and hoppiness of England’s finest India Pale Ales, brewed since the 1700s in Burton-on-Trent, result from relatively high levels of calcium in local water.” Brewers can replicate the flavors of beers like these and others by sourcing freshwater with similar features or by starting with neutral water and adding minerals and salts accordingly to bring out certain desired characteristics.

Of course, clean water is essential to more than great-tasting beer. “It’s critical for public health and the health of a wide range of industries,” adds NRDC. “Now our streams, wetlands and water supply need our help. Without strong legal protections, they are under threat from pollution like sewage, agricultural waste, and oil spills.”

The popularity of craft brewers’ “microbrews” in recent years is another reason why NRDC has hitched its clean water wagon to the industry. “Craft brewers are closely tied to their communities with a very real understanding of the impacts bad policy can have on regional water sources,” reports the group. “While the participants in the campaign include brewing operations large and small, all have demonstrated a commitment to sustainability in their operations and beer development.”

By taking part in the campaign, New Belgium, Sierra Nevada, Allagash, Short’s, Temperance, Arbor, DryHop, Finch’s, Revolution, Flossmoor, Cranker’s, Wild Onion, Right Brain, Half Acre, Goose Island and other craft brewers are helping spread the word in a way that hits home with consumers. For its part, NRDC is urging beer lovers (and other concerned environmentalists) to use the form on its website to e-mail the White House encouraging President Obama to finalize guidelines recently created by the Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that call for greater protections for streams and wetlands in important headwaters regions from coast to coast. And consumers should be glad to know that for once drinking beer can actually be good for the environment. So bottoms up!

CONTACT: NRDC Brewers for Clean Water.

A SYNDICATED COLUMN ONLY ON AMERICAJR.COM

 

 

 

 

 

SEND IN YOUR QUESTIONS...

GOT AN ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTION? Send it to: EarthTalk, c/o E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; submit it at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/thisweek/, or e-mail: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Read past columns at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/archives.php.

 

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