New Jersey Chemical Plant Plan Has Only Voluntary Standards
Corzine Administration Caves on Governor’s Signature Environmental Issue
Trenton — The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection has adopted voluntary chemical plant safety regulations, according to internal agency documents posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). These state rules were warmly praised by the chemical industry and condemned by unions representing plant workers in formal comments.
Promulgated under the state’s Toxic Catastrophe Prevention Act, the rules were supposed to implement Governor Jon Corzine’s pledge to require the use of “inherently safer technology” (IST) to prevent catastrophic chemical accidents or acts of terrorism at an estimated 100 chemical plants throughout the state. Widely praised by environmental and labor groups, IST is supposed to require that industry adopt practices eliminating use of dangerous chemicals so as to reduce risks.
The regulations, which will appear in the next New Jersey Register, the state’s official legal publication, have three major weaknesses that are drawing criticism:
- Implementation of IST is voluntary. The rules only require industry to conduct an IST review but do not require industry to take any action based on that review;
- These IST reviews are deemed secret and therefore not subject to public or worker scrutiny; and
- The chemical industry is allowed to base accident prevention feasibility decisions on economic grounds, thus subjugating public health and safety to industry profit margins.
“’Inherently safer technologies’ was supposed to be the most effective solution for managing the safety, security, and health risk associated with chemical plants, but what New Jersey produced is only a faint echo of what should have been enacted,” stated New Jersey PEER Director Bill Wolfe. “This is like the IRS requiring people to fill out tax forms but making actual payment of taxes voluntary.”
Not surprisingly, the Chemistry Council, representing industry, submitted comments in which it “commends the Department for not mandating the implementation of IST in this rule proposal and limiting the scope of IST to completing reviews…” By contrast, the New Jersey State Industrial Union Council, representing plant workers, blasted the secrecy of the IST reports.
As the nation’s most densely populated state with a large petrochemical industry, New Jersey has been in the national spotlight on chemical plant safety. Reflecting fears of stringent state regulation, the chemical industry recently battled in Congress to block states from going beyond minimum federal Homeland Security requirements. That battle allegedly ended in December with a mixed result.
“Experience has shown that voluntary compliance does not work, and due to the huge stakes, chemical safety is the last program that should be made voluntary,” added Wolfe, pointing to studies showing that a chemical accident or terrorism event at even one of 15 chemical plants could kill more than 100,000 people who live nearby. “If New Jersey’s chemical plant safety rules are going to be this weak, why should anyone care if they are preempted?”
New Jersey PEER is a state chapter of a national alliance of state and federal agency resource professionals working to ensure environmental ethics and government accountability.