A sprawling Capitol Hill debate over protecting U.S. chemical facilities from terrorists has come down to a central question: What should be done about chlorine?
Chlorine has been used for more than a century to disinfect drinking water and is responsible for a 50 percent increase in life expectancy, according to the American Water Works Association. About 98 percent of North American water treatment systems use chlorine, the trade group says.
But environmentalists -- the most vocal proponents of strong water-treatment rules -- do not like chlorine. They say rail shipping and storage of massive amounts of chlorine gas to water-treatment plants are dangerous. U.S. PIRG and other advocacy groups say gas released in a derailment or terrorist attack can threaten the lives of thousands of people in a single incident. They want water-treatment plants to find safer substitutes.
"The most effective method to secure chemical facilities is to replace dangerous chemicals and processes with safer alternatives when such alternatives are feasible and cost-effective," Liz Hitchcock of U.S. PIRG told a House panel earlier this year. More than 200 treatment plants, she said, have already converted to safer alternatives.
Heeding such advice, the House included a provision in its recently passed chemical security legislation that requires high-risk chemical facilities like treatment plants to switch -- if it is deemed technically and financially feasible -- to safer alternatives. That provision figures to be a sticking point in the Senate, where Republicans argue that regulations requiring alternatives would drive companies out of business and cost jobs.
"We think the industry probably knows better than ... the government does when it comes to our type of inherently safer technology," said Jim Palmer, president of Allied New Technologies, which has been in the bleach business for more than 50 years.
But there are industry officials who do not mind the discussion. "The debate is healthy. This needs to be talked about," said Robert Cheng, engineer and deputy general manager of operations at the Long Beach Water Department in California, which is experimenting with making chlorine gas on-site.
"I'm just surprised there's not been more attention paid to it," Cheng added. "When tons and tons of toxic chemicals are moving through by tanker trucks, I think it gives reason for pause."
Advocates of alternative technologies say the legislation is too weak to eliminate rail transport of chlorine gas.
"The legislation out there is obviously trying to do the right thing, and the bill itself is a far climb from where we once were," said David Cynamon, chairman of K2 Pure Solutions, a company that plans to use salt, water and electricity to produce chlorine on-site. "But I think we all believe it doesn't go far enough."
For example, Cynamon said, a provision requiring states to review chemical facilities' safety determinations and allowing them to order safer alternatives does not address the safety of the entire supply chain. While plants could be forced to buy bleach instead of chlorine, the bleach manufacturer would still have to buy chlorine.