As Congress considers legislation that would force our nation’s chemical plants to make expensive changes in their processes and technologies, we need to make sure that we don’t cripple our economy just to appease a small group of environmental activists — all in the name of purportedly greater safety.
That’s the danger we face from IST, or Inherently Safer Technology. What could be wrong with a law that contains such a noble goal as safety? It has to do with the complexity of a modern industrial economy providing the backdrop on which unintended consequences develop. A recent article in The Hill explains:
IST is governed by the laws of physics and engineering, not the laws of politics and emotion. A reduction in hazard will result in a reduction in risk if, and only if, that hazard is not displaced or replaced by another hazard. Even if it were possible to simply switch from one chemical to another, switching often results in the mere transfer of risk from the chemical plant to some other entity, perhaps the surrounding community, with no actual risk-reduction registered. For example, a government mandate that forces a company to reduce the amount of a particular chemical at a facility could very well result in an increase in transportation and safety risk. The company still has to maintain the same level of production capacity and the only way to maintain current capacity is to increase the number of shipments — through the community — going into the chemical plant.
The article also states that there’s no objective way to measure the notion of “inherently safer.” But there is an objective way to measure the costs that IST will impose on manufacturers and our economy. It’s a huge cost, both in terms of dollars and lost jobs. Even the Wichita water treatment plant is on a list of facilities targeted by environmental extremists as dangerous.
Chemical manufacturers, says the author, aren’t opposed to safety. In fact, the industry places great emphasis on safety and has spent billions on plant security since 9/11.