ACRYLONITRILE (or What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You)

Daily, we see stories about the problems regulators cause business and development across the country or we hear about how regulators failed in places like Flint, Michigan. The new administration has proposed cutting the budget of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) by 25 percent in an effort to reduce the regulatory burden created by at least one agency. I am sure other regulatory agencies will be affected as well.

I confess to muttering bad words under my breath about more than one federal or state agency myself on occasion, but I recently recalled an issue that occurred here in Albany, Oregon, a few years ago that gives me cause to be concerned about our current course.

Most of us have never heard of Acrylonitrile, “…a colorless volatile liquid that is an important monomer for the manufacture of useful plastics such as polyacrylontrile. It is reactive and toxic at low doses.” I certainly wasn’t aware that a local manufacturer was using this substance a few years ago, and I doubt that many others who lived near the plant were either. We rely on businesses to handle any dangerous chemicals responsibly, and they usually do. But what happens when a business with a large store of extremely dangerous material that requires careful management goes bankrupt? In Albany’s case, our Fire Department wrote a check to replenish the nitrogen blanket needed to control the material and then called the EPA to see if they could help. The agency immediately recognized the threat to public health and dispatched a team to Albany to conduct the needed cleanup. The federal officials worked collaboratively with our Fire Department, and the great majority of local residents never realized that a potential disaster was averted.

Every day, we rely on people we disparage as bureaucrats and regulators to ensure our health and safety. We regularly see and complain about their failings when something goes wrong, but I wonder if we appreciate the benefits of living in a place where things usually are done right. It takes little imagination to realize that if manufacturing plants in Albany, Oregon, occasionally have problems handling materials that can produce a catastrophe, then there must be many other places across the country where the same potential exists.

Maybe there won’t be any more incidents in the future like the one that occurred here in the past, and maybe adding a little more risk to our lives is worth whatever savings we might see on our tax bills. Perhaps businesses that use life-threatening compounds will never go bankrupt again or railroads transporting toxic substances will never have wrecks. I know I am grateful for the people who cleaned up the last mess we inherited in Albany and who work every day to help prevent similar threats in the future. I hope they will still be around when we need them in the years ahead.