For many visitors, the first glimpse of New Jersey is a string of industrial plants and refineries in a sea of yellow light along the Turnpike.
With the state’s most hazardous chemical facilities so close to its most traveled routes and densest living areas, New Jersey’s chemical safety regulations have long been a harbinger of federal law.
Now Garden State officials say they’ve raised the bar again, mandating regular reviews for safety upgrades at the 89 most dangerous chemical plants, oil refineries, water treatment plants and industrial facilities in the state.
The reviews — done by the facilities themselves — won’t force companies to convert their operations to safer alternatives. But Lisa Jackson, commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Protection, expects a drop in chemical hazards because those reviews will require the companies to explain their decisions on whether they will implement safety improvements or not.
“They’re stronger than federal regulations,” Jackson said. “And you’re going to see a tremendous impact.”
Environmentalists, however, criticize the DEP because while the regulations force chemical companies to consider safer procedures, they are not required to enact them.
“I don’t want this to be the high-water mark,” said Rick Hind, legislative director for Greenpeace. “There shouldn’t be anything ambiguous about converting these facilities.”
Industry groups say the new mandates merely formalize reviews that are already conducted. But advocates say the new measures will reduce the chance of a chemical catastrophe by cutting down the amount of hazardous substances in the state.
“The only way to make plants safer is to deal with the operations themselves, instead of more guards, gates and guns,” said Rick Engler, executive director of the state Work Environment Council. Engler has led a coalition of labor unions, environmental groups and community organizations pushing for the new DEP rules that went into effect last week. Plants have 120 days to prepare their reviews, if they have not already.
An order by Gov. Richard Codey in 2005 required a one-time review of safety improvements at 42 chemical factories in the state. The new rules expand the regulations to any facility handling extremely hazardous substances, require new reviews every five years and enforce compliance with fines.
Jackson said New Jersey is the first state with the new regulations. She expects dramatic changes at companies that must now consider safer chemicals and procedures.
For example, a Schweitzer-Mauduit paper mill four miles east of the New Jersey Turnpike in Spotswood was the sixth most dangerous facility in the state a year ago. The poisonous chlorine gas used at the plant had to be shipped in 90-ton rail cars through town, and the plant’s worst-case catastrophe could have endangered more than a million people within 14 miles.
In advance of the new rules, though, the paper mill switched to a chlorine dioxide bleach that can be generated on site as needed. In June last year, the company stopped all shipment and storage of chlorine at the site.
It will be up to companies to implement the safer technologies they are required to evaluate, but Jackson says the reviews put companies on the record as considering safety upgrades.
Jackson says the liability of having considered and rejected safety upgrades — if anything does go wrong — will be enough to compel many companies toward safer methods.
California’s Contra Costa County, which passed similar regulations almost a decade ago, has seen its refineries and chemical plants reduce the volume of chemical tanks, piping and trucks in the county, cutting the odds of a chemical disaster.
Randy Sawyer, who runs Contra Costa’s hazardous materials program, said the chemical industry has eliminated all of the chlorine and 90 percent of the ammonia stored in the county because of its Industrial Safety Ordinance.
“The way they handle their business has changed a lot,” Sawyer said. “The industry has seen increased scrutiny and there’s been a real shift in attitude.”
Scott Jensen, spokesman for the American Chemistry Council, said New Jersey’s chemical plants have had no problem complying with the state’s reviews so far, but calls them unnecessary.
“You spend an incredible amount of time documenting considerations you’re already making,” Jensen said. “And it draws the focus away from the physical security, cyber security and background checks that we need to make facilities more secure.”
New Jersey has historically been ahead of the federal government in passing chemical safety laws.
Following a 1984 explosion at a pesticide plant that killed thousands in Bhopal, India, New Jersey passed the Toxic Catastrophe Prevention Act. That law mandated risk management at the state’s most dangerous facilities and gave the state DEP authority for the recent regulations. A similar amendment to the federal Clean Air Act soon followed.
But New Jerseyans don’t have to remember the Bhopal disaster to know the potential for catastrophe in their own backyards.
In 1995, a vat filled with 10,000 pounds of toxic chemicals exploded killing five workers at Napp Technologies in Lodi, a small town in Bergen County. In 1998, a similar runaway reaction six miles away in Paterson injured nine workers and blanketed the neighborhood in chemical residue.
And when the Bush Administration recently tried to pre-empt state law with federal chemical regulations, Sen. Frank Lautenberg passed a provision in a massive December spending bill that allowed New Jersey to keep its tougher rules.
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