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?

At issue is whether water treatment plants can function without 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.

"The risk is just being passed along," Cynamon said. "Nothing's changed. ... The problem is the supply chain -- it's passing risk on a few miles away."

'It all sounds real good on paper'

Not everyone agrees that stronger mandates are the way to go, and some dissenters say water purification is complicated and chlorine is used for a variety of purposes other than water.

Industry representatives say they are complying with current Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards (CFATS), and that the safer technology language in the bill would require federally mandated technologies on facilities about which the government knows less than the industry.

"The current CFATS are, we feel, really good," bleach manufacturer Palmer said. "We're not so sure with ... the idea of inherently safer technologies."

Palmer's Allied New Technologies has seven plants that use the traditional bleach-making method and is planning a new plant using the salt-to-bleach method. Palmer said it would be the largest such facility in North America.

"We're going to be looking at how well this works and potentially doing it at other plants at other areas in the United States," Palmer said. "Like anything else, it all sounds real good on paper, but we want to run the plant for a while. Being an essential service, we can't assume everything's going to work real well."

The new plant is possible because the company has a large customer base that can absorb the upfront capital costs, which can make it impossible for some facilities that do not have a steady base, Palmer said.

"It's a huge capital investment," Palmer said.

And building a plant that can turn salt and water into bleach is complicated. "It sounds really great [to use safer technologies]," Palmer said, "but if the plant goes down and the community doesn't have safe drinking water, how safe is the community?"

Decisions about switching from chlorine depend on risk-versus-return analyses, Palmer said. An isolated facility, for example, poses a much lower risk when chlorine is shipped in than does a plant in a city, he said.

There are other approaches being taken to minimize the risk of chlorine shipments. Olin Corp., a major producer of industrial bleach that uses the salt-to-bleach technology, announced plans last month to have rail cars specifically designed to carry bleach by the end of next year.

"This country is going to have a lot of choices in the next six months to a year as far as how to obtain bleach for water purification," said Tim Maegly, owner of BleachTech, an Ohio-based company that uses the technology favored by Allied New Technologies.

Price tag

Another consideration in utility decisions on chlorine is cost.

Elemental chlorine gas is 100 percent chlorine, while sodium hypochlorite -- or bleach -- is about 14 percent chlorine, meaning it takes more pounds of sodium hypochlorite than chlorine gas to achieve the same results.

Sodium hypochlorite made from salt, water and electricity is purer, Maegly said, because facilities can control each step of the process for impurities. This means the product is superior, he said, but producers have to thoroughly understand the operation and the bleach market in order to make a transition possible.

"You have to be in the bleach business for a long time to understand how the bleach market works," he said.

A plant that makes bleach using salt can cost about $30 million, Maegly said, compared to $2 million or less using chlorine gas that is shipped in. For the higher cost, though, the bleach is purer and won't degrade.

But activists point to the number of facilities that have already made the switch as a strong argument for the feasibility of such a provision and say that one of the key aspects of security is reducing consequences.

"Using safer and more secure chemicals and processes is the common-sense way to make chemical plants, and therefore, our communities safer and more secure," U.S. PIRG's Hitchcock said. "Chlorine is an example of where the technology has gotten out there to make it possible to both use alternatives and to produce it just in time so you're not transporting and storing 90-ton rail cars full of it."

Reprinted from Greenwire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500