This past week, PSR-LA took part in an  important delegation of fenceline advocates who successfully moved a message to EPA Secretary Lisa Jackson through one of EPA’s advisory agency to prevent chemical disasters by using unused authority in the Clean Air Act. The National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC) unanimously recommended that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) prevent chemical disasters by using unused the General Duty Clause (GDC) of the Clean Air Act. This decision puts renewed pressure on the Obama administration to use its power under existing law to prevent chemical disasters through the use of safer available chemical processes.

Based on testimonies, fact sheets, and actions, the NEJAC included in its final recommendations that the agency use its Clean Air Act authority to require chemical facilities to use safer, alternative technologies to protect against a hazardous chemical release or accident.  This message aligned with the continued need for reform of Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 (TSCA).

The NEJAC is a federal advisory committee that was established in September 1993 to provide independent advice, consultation and recommendations to the EPA Administrator on matters related to environmental justice.  It is chartered under Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA) regulations.

Read more at Greenpeace. Testimony delivered at the NEJAC meeting is below.

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Comments to NEJAC from Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles (PSR-LA), delivered by Ana Mascareñas, Policy Coordinator. October 26th, 2011.

My name is Ana Mascareñas and I’m the Policy Coordinator with Physicians for Social Responsibility in Los Angeles, and I’m proud to be here in my hometown today, asking you to recommend important actions to Administrator Jackson. Thank you for your service on this committee, and for your voice in environmental justice.

My organization represents 4,000 physicians and health advocates throughout California and we are one chapter of more than 30 across the country. We seek to prevent disease and death by eliminating threats to health and the environment. Through looking at the social determinants of illness, we stand side by side with environmental justice communities, lifting the public health case for protective public health policies.

Under current practices, the EPA is not using its full authority to protect the millions of Americans who live near high risk chemical plants – each one of those plants having the potential to kill or injure thousands of workers and community residents because of unnecessary storage and use of poison gases.

According to the EPA’s Risk Management Program there are 483 chemical facilities that each put 100,000 or more people at risk of a chemical disaster. EPA Region 6 is home to 160 of these facilities and California has more than 58. Since the 1984 Bhopal disaster in India and more recently since September 11th there has been consensus about the magnitude of these risks. In 2003 the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory estimated that a release from one rail car of chlorine gas in a densely populated area could kill or injure 100,000 people in the first 30 minutes following the release.

We cannot continue to allow this.

These hazards are preventable. Since 2001 several hundred chemical facilities have switched to safer and more secure chemical processes, eliminating these risks to 40 million Americans in 47 states. , ,

At this moment, with a partisan gridlocked Congress, the best way to ensure that chemical disaster prevention policies are implemented soon is to enforce the 1990 Clean Air Act’s General Duty Clause. This clause obligates all chemical facilities to be designed and maintained to prevent catastrophic chemical releases. This would also be consistent with policies that the Obama administration has advocated in Congress.

In 2002 the EPA actually drafted such a proposal (attached to our letter and written testimony) which would have implemented the General Duty Clause for the first time. Tragically, with pressure from the petro-chemical lobby, the Bush adminstration scuttled the EPA proposal.

We at Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles, along with our many allies across the region and country, respectfully urge the NEJAC to recommend to Adminstrator Jackson that the EPA use its authority under the Clean Air Act to reduce or eliminate these catastrophic risks by issuing new rules and guidance to fully implement the General Duty Clause. On June 21st a coalition of more than 100 local and national organizations sent President Obama a letter (also attached) making this same request. Given the availability of safer chemical processes, there is no reason why millions of Americans should continue to bear these risks.

We also know that risks posed by hazardous chemicals in many of these plants don’t stop with vulnerability to accidents and terrorism – workers and fenceline communities continue to be at greatest risk for direct exposure to these hazards. These chemicals find their way into our many consumer products, and often the most dangerous ones make their way into low-income and communities of color, further contributing to already high health disparites and chronic health conditions. Preventing dirty processes and the resulting toxic products in our homes should also be addressed with reform of the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act, which my organization has been active in supporting, and which I know is already supported by the Administration.

Environmental justice advocates have a key role to play in preventing everyday industrial pollution in our communities, and preventing catastrophes from security vulnerabilities.

Reproductive health must also be considered so we can protect men and women from exposure to reproductive toxins. These chemical plants pose significant health risks to our ability to conceive, bear a healthy child, and then breastfeed the child if that is the choice we make. Health risks also include development of diseases or disabilities later in life because of exposures experienced in the womb, during infancy, early childhood, or adolescence. Eliminating these risks would be working towards reproductive justice, which clearly intersects with environmental justice in this context.

I hope to have children some day, and I want to know that we as a society are taking reasonable steps to prevent disease and death from chemical exposures and catastrophes. And for my brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, cousins, and family across the Southwest, California and the whole country, we deserve to live free of the imminent risk posed by these chemical facilities that have not adopted safer practices. This is a reasonable step to protect current and future generations. Please use your authority to recommend EPA’s use of the Clean Air Act General Duty Clause.