Chernobyl

The government the polluters paid for

Written by Mark Floegel, crossposted from Greenpeace USA.

Happy Chernobyl Day. It was 25 years ago today Soviet engineers were conducting a systems test on that nuclear reactor when a sudden power surge led to a series of explosions, a fire and the worst nuclear reactor disaster in history… so far. The ongoing disaster in Fukushima, Japan may be worse by the time that situation is under control.

How are you celebrating Chernobyl Day? The folks in Texas City, Texas are celebrating by staying indoors and sealing their windows and door with duct tape. It’s called “shelter in place” and it’s not really a Chernobyl Day commemoration, it’s the citizens only defense against noxious fumes emanating from three refineries and a vinyl acetate facility that have experienced a power loss. Power loss, the same thing that kicked off the Fukushima disaster.

The three Texas City refineries are owned by Valero, Marathon and BP. The BP refinery is the most famous of the three, due to an explosion in 2005 that killed 15 workers and injured 180 others. The federal Occupation Safety and Health Administration found BP had ignored safeguards prior to that explosion. BP is trying to sell that refinery. So far, no takers.

According to wire reports, area residents report noxious fumes in the air, making breathing difficult. The refineries’ flares are still burning, so it’s unclear why people are choking. Other gaseous emissions may be occurring. Later reports say the power outage was caused not by the local utility, but by problems inside the industrial facilities.

We at Greenpeace have witnessed many industrial accidents. One sad feature of them all is that the industry in question always gives out incomplete or misleading information on day one. There always seems to be more concern for controlling the PR than for protecting the health of people who live nearby. There are 550,000 people who live in the “vulnerability zone” around the BP refinery. These are the folks who’ve been told to duct tape themselves into their homes.

The weather report says it’s 80 degrees and hazy in Texas City. Of course, you have to shut off your air conditioner when you “shelter in place.” What would you do if you lived there? Tape the windows, swelter, turn on the radio, pray? Or grab the kids and run for the car, risk being overcome by fumes, just try to get out of there? Where would you go?  These are not gated communities of McMansions.  People who live near refineries don’t have much money.

Dow Chemical owns the vinyl acetate facility. The plant was part of Union Carbide, which Dow purchased in 2001. In 1984, a Union Carbide facility in India leaked methyl isocyanate. The “vulnerability zone” around that plant had a half million poor people living in it, too. Twenty thousand of them died; another 150,000 were severely injured.

According to the material safety data sheet for vinyl acetate, it is immediately threatening to the eyes, skin and lungs and cancer-causing in the longer term.

We at Greenpeace have been working for a nearly a decade – since before the 9/11 attacks – to convert America’s industrial facilities from the use of hazardous feedstocks to available safer alternatives, ones that don’t require huge amounts of poison gasses in the communities where we live and raise out children.

In 2004, then-Congressman Jim Turner (D), who represented a nearby area, called such plants “pre-positioned toxic weapons of mass destruction.” Unfortunately, a decade of efforts by legislators like Mr. Turner has run into a wall of pre-positioned lobbyists from the chemical industry and the politicians whose campaigns they finance.

Our nation was attacked by terrorists and no measures were taken to protect us from distinct hazards nestled among a half million people. Our economy crashed and no effort was made to recoup the thieved billions or regulate our financial markets. Three reactors and four spent fuel pools in Japan have been in crisis for weeks and our government does nothing to examine the 23 similar reactors in this country.

You get what you pay for, except this isn’t the government you paid for. It’s the one the polluters paid for.

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