No Chemical Security in New Homeland Security Department

 

Feature story - January 27, 2003
After more than a year of efforts in Congress, the Homeland Security Department was created without addressing the vulnerability of U.S. chemical plants to terrorism. Under pressure from the chemical industry lobby, a moderate chemical security bill was killed at the eleventh hour last year, leaving no federal program to prevent threats to U.S. chemical plants.

Since September 11, 2002 the Bush administration has failed to take any action on the ability of terrorist to turn our chemical plants into weapons of mass destruction. In May of last year, the EPA considered legislation as well as new regulations but was overruled. In October when Congress was running out of time, EPA finally embraced the need for new legislation.

The EPA has identified more than 100 U.S. chemical facilities that threaten a million or more local residents. According to the Brookings Institute, U.S. chemical plants represent the third highest risk of fatalities from possible terrorist attacks. The Army Surgeon General estimated that 2.4 million people could be killed or injured in an attack on an American chemical plant. Adding guards and higher fences at chemical facilities will not prevent attacks, but converting these facilities to using safer materials will.

On January 14th chemical security legislation (S. 157) was re-introduced by Senator Jon Corzine (D-NJ) that would specifically require the EPA to prioritize prevention plans for the worst chemical threats. S. 157 is identical to the compromise bill that was adopted by all the Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Environment Committee in July 2002. However, more rapid action is now needed to make up for the time lost since the September 11th attacks.

S. 157 attends to only stationary facilities, leaving the transportation of hazardous substances completely unaddressed. Although S. 157 gives credit to chemical facilities for acting faster if they choose, they can take two and half years to submit plans to prevent attacks. Even if this bill was fast-tracked and signed by the President soon, the industry would have until 2006 just to develop their prevention plans. Implementation could take even longer.

Fortunately faster action is possible. Safer alternatives for almost all of these chemicals are available today. In addition, there are safer ways to use and store these chemicals while conversion to safer technologies is implemented.

Within eight weeks following September 11th, Washington, DC's main sewage treatment plant eliminated any terrorist threat by ending the use of chlorine and switching to safer chemicals. This success can and should be repeated in thousands of vulnerable communities outside of Washington, DC.

In addition to strengthening U.S. laws, the EPA has authority under the Clean Air Act to require chemical companies to take action to prevent disasters. Unfortunately the EPA has disputed this even though they agree that voluntary action by the chemical industry is woefully inadequate.

For more information on chemical security visitSenator Corzine's website.

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