Greenpeace continues to roll out new variations on their messages calling for grassroot support for new, comprehensive chemical security legislation. The current campaign builds on their “Don’t Let the ‘Crazies’ Fool You” campaign that uses the latest zombies movie to stand as a symbolic exemplar of the hazards associated with dangerous chemicals. Each new variation brings a new round of social network site (Twitter and probably FaceBook) responses that spread the word virally around the internet. It is hard to tell from the outside how well this translates into clicks on the form emails to Representatives and Senators, or maybe more importantly, how well it gets contributions to the Greenpeace political coffers. Their campaigns do not call for contributions to Greenpeace, but I would be very surprised is such contributions did not track their efforts.
I have chided the chemical industry opposition to HR 2868 for some of their exaggerations, so it is only fair that I point out that Greenpeace is guilty of the same type of political shenanigans. For example, in their latest piece touted on Twitter (though the actual web page may be older) they quote their standard statistic of “One in three Americans is currently at unnecessary risk from dangerous chemical plants.” While not false, this is an exaggeration of the first order based upon their failure to explain how the figure was arrived at.
This ‘one-in-three’ number can be traced back to the figure of 110 million Americans ‘put at risk’ of a potential toxic inhalation hazard release due to a terrorist attack. This figure was developed by the Center for American Progress. They looked at 300 chemical facilities that reported storing large quantities of chemicals like chlorine gas and anhydrous ammonia. Using the maximum distance that a toxic cloud would spread before it became effectively non-hazardous, they then drew a circle around the facility with that distance as a radius. Counting all of the people that lived/worked within that circle provided the number of people at risk for that facility.
While everyone within that circle is potentially at risk for injury from a catastrophic release, only a small fraction could actually be possibly exposed in an actual incident. The wind disperses a chemical cloud in a fan shaped pattern. The extent of the area covered by the cloud in that fan shaped area is dictated by the wind and temperature at the time of release. In any case that fan covers only a small portion of the circle used to calculate the ‘at-risk’ population cited by CAP and Greenpeace.
Furthermore, toxic exposures within that fan area will vary widely; from deadly to no effect. Depending on the physical characteristics of the toxic gas, people above the ground floor in multi-story buildings might not be affected, even within hundreds of yards of the release. Finally, the medical effects on the great majority of the personnel actually exposed would be short term effects requiring little medical care. To be sure, a catastrophic release of a large chlorine tank car in an urban area would kill a large number of people, but not anywhere near the numbers being reported by the environmental activists.
Assume that it is fair to calculate that anyone within the exposure circle as being at risk, because on any given day the wind could be blowing in any direction. Even if they might not be harmed in a given successful terrorist attack, they are at risk for being harmed if the wind is blowing the correct direction. Even then the 110 million people figure is misleading. Many of these facilities are concentrated in small areas around the country. Thus their circle-of-effects overlap to a great extent. If a single person is exposed to potential injury from multiple plants, they cannot be counted multiple times in the national ‘at-risk’ pool.
Finally, we need to compare these potential risks to everyday risks that people accept as a natural part of their lives. For example since they count everyone in the potential effects area as being at risk, isn’t everyone that drives on or walks along roadsides at risk for severe injuries in an automobile accident. Thus the number at risk for that (certainly over 300,000,000) readily outweighs the risk of being exposed to hazardous chemicals from a successful terrorist attack.
There is a Risk
Now, don’t get me wrong. There is a large level of risk for significant portions of the population from a successful attack on a large toxic inhalation hazard chemical storage sites. One way of reducing that level of risk is to change over to less hazardous chemicals where possible and appropriate. There are also other ways that are nearly as effective given the actual probability of such an attack happening (based upon past history, no chance; based upon reasonable projections that such an attack could happen, some small chance).
A reasonable discussion needs to take place on how to make that assessment in a way that best serves society as a whole. Trying to force that discussion based upon fear makes it very hard for the people with different ideas to take you seriously.
Greenpeace, you need to come up with a better method for expressing your legitimate concerns about the real hazards associated with these materials. Until you do, your opposition will not take you seriously, and you will have little chance of affecting the political outcome.
I spent 15 years in the US Army as an Infantry NCO. After getting out of the Army I started working in the chemical industry, getting my BSc Chemistry degree while working as a technician. I spent 12 years working as a process chemist in a specialty chemical company. Most recently I worked as a QA/R&D Manager in a specialty chemical manufacturing facility. Currently I am working as a freelance writer.