New hazardous chemical risks cited after 9/11 

Some Missoula non-profit groups are encouraging the state to take part in a national initiative to reduce the risk posed by hazardous indus-trial chemicals.

MontPIRG and Women’s Voices for the Earth (WVE) are spearheading Montana’s end of the “Safe Hometowns Initiative,” an effort by Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) chapters and other groups around the country to get communities involved in hazardous chemical issues.

“There are still some very real threats in our own backyard,” says David Ponder, executive director of MontPIRG.

The groups involved have been tracking the industrial use of hazardous chemicals for years, says Alexandra Gorman, project coordinator for WVE. September 11 added a new urgency, she says, because now sites are threatened by intentional attacks as well as industrial accidents.

Last week the Safe Hometown Initiative released two reports, one assessing hazards around the country, and the other a guide for local activists. Montana has 42 sites that contain more than 100,000 pounds of extremely hazardous chemicals, according to the first report. In almost every case the hazardous chemical is ammonia, a popular fertilizer component used by farm supply wholesalers.

Post-Sept. 11 security concerns have made it much harder to find lists of which chemicals are located where, and in some cases the information is no longer made public at all. For environmentalists and community activists, this means striking a delicate balance.

“Certainly nobody wants to give terrorists a roadmap to blow up buildings,” Ponder says. “But the whole idea of increasing the public’s right to know is, if a community knows about the potential risks posed to them, they’ll become more active and put more pressure on industry to do something about it.”

The plan of action for the Safe Hometown Initiative calls for community leaders and activists to examine possible threats in their community and pressure industry and government to take safety measures. One example in the report cited by Gorman is a Washington, D.C. sewage treatment plant that used large amounts of chlorine. Fearing that it would be a potential target after Sept. 11, community activists encouraged the plant to switch to a less toxic but equally effective chemical.

A copy of the report was given to the head of Montana’s Homeland Security Task Force, and in May Gorman will be meeting with the State Emergency Response Committee.

“It’s a concrete way that communities can actually reduce their risk that doesn’t rely on extensive FBI intelligence or things that are beyond our control,” Gorman says. “And it can make a real difference.”

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