A chemical leak at Tampa's Howard F. Curren Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant could put more than 1 million people at risk, a coalition of environmental groups said Tuesday.
But they said the plant could be made safer, and they called on U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, to support legislation to facilitate such conversions.
"It's the right thing to do," Greenpeace field organizer Matthew De Vlieger said at a news conference with the Sierra Club, Physicians for Social Responsibility and the Florida Consumer Action Network.
Last year, the nonprofit Center for American Progress named the Curren wastewater plant one of the nation's 101 most dangerous chemical facilities. The list was drawn from risk management plans that chemical facilities must submit to the Environmental Protection Agency.
The center said Tampa's plant could treat wastewater more safely by using ultraviolet light or by substituting other chemicals, including liquid bleach, for the sulfur dioxide and chlorine gas it now uses.
Existing legislation to secure chemical plants from terrorist attacks focuses mainly on access, critics say.
The Center for American Progress said terrorists can't blow up what a facility doesn't have, so it's better not to use the most dangerous chemicals.
Activists said there are 102 schools and two hospitals within 5 miles of the Curren plant, which is at the Port of Tampa.
A chemical leak "would be a public health disaster," said Dr. Donald Mellman of Physicians for Social Responsibility.
Greenpeace legislative director Rick Hind said that when the House Homeland Security Committee met to mark up the proposed Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Act of 2009, Bilirakis supported four amendments that could make it harder for the government to require facilities to adopt safer chemical processes.
In June, Bilirakis was one of 11 committee members to vote against the amended bill.
Greenpeace called on him to support the bill, H.R. 2868, as well as another bill, H.R. 3258, written to make drinking water systems more secure. They also urged him to support federal funding to help cities like Tampa retrofit their plants.
Bilirakis' office said he supports "efforts to ensure that our nation's chemical plants are as secure as possible."
Earlier this year, according to his office, he supported extending the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards program, which sets "comprehensive federal security regulations for high-risk chemical facilities."
Tampa wastewater director Ralph Metcalf said the estimate that a leak could endanger 1 million people sounded high. City officials have coordinated plans with fire and emergency responders to ensure an immediate and massive response.
The city also has investigated alternatives to its current chemical processes, but the costs run into millions of dollars, he said.
"If somebody says here's $10 (million) or $20 million, that changes everything," Metcalf said.