Is Remembering 9/11 Enough?

by Rick Hind

September 12, 2008

On the seventh anniversary of the 9/11 attacks Senators Barack Obama (D-IL) and John McCain (R-AZ) suspended their presidential campaigns for a day and came together at ground zero in New York City to honor 9/11 victims and their families.  Is it possible to keep that cooperation alive?  What if they decided to work together in the Senate this fall to complete some unfinished 9/11 business from the last Congress?

In 2006 Congress passed a temporary law to set minimum-security standards for U.S. chemical plants.  Unfortunately it was ghost written by industry lobbyists and it actually prohibits the government from requiring the most ironclad security measures.  It also expires on October 4, 2009 which will give Congress little time in 2009 to pass any law, let alone one that protects us.
Cities that surround chemical plants have long been recognized as one of the nation’s most vulnerable populations to terrorism and catastrophic accidents.  The Department of Homeland Security has identified 3,400 chemical plants that if attacked would each put neighboring communities of 1,000 or more at risk.  For example, one plant in New Jersey, the Kuehne chemical plant (see disaster map) puts 12 million people at risk due to its use of chlorine gas. According to the company’s own reports to the EPA, the disaster zone extends 14 miles, beyond ground zero in Manhattan.

Former Senator Warren Rudman (R-NH) told CBS’s 60 Minutes, “the threat is just staring us in the face.  I mean, all you’d have to do is to have a major chemical facility in a major metropolitan area go up and there’d be hell to pay politically.”

All that is protecting these plants today are security guards, video cameras, and fences. Instead of relying on guards and fences, we need to change what makes a chemical plant an attractive terrorist target.

Fortunately, many safer chemicals and processes are available that can turn these plants into safer places that would be pointless for a terrorist to attack. One example is a Canadian company, that’s in the very same business as Kuehne, which plans to open several new U.S. plants.  For more information:

Safer chemical plants shouldn’t be optional they should be the norm just like safer airplanes. But the chemical industry likes the temporary law because it actually bars the government from requiring safer chemicals or processes, in other words it eliminates their strongest competitors.  In addition, this law explicitly exempts thousands of chemical facilities including approximately 3,000 water treatment plants, many of which use deadly chlorine gas.

As you might expect the chemical industry wants Congress to do nothing this year and just renew the weak law NEXT year. That won’t make anyone safer but it will make the loopholes permanent.  In May we released a report showing that the chemical industry and allies fielded at least 238 registered lobbyists on Capitol Hill to keep the weak law weak.

So far this year only one Committee in Congress has taken action.  On March 6th, the House Homeland Security Committee adopted the “Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Act of 2008” (H.R. 5577) in a bi-partisan vote. Their bill addressed all the flaws in the temporary law. Unfortunately it has been stalled since June due to a dispute with the House Energy and Commerce Committee (see Greenpeace letter to Speaker Pelosi) over which government agency should regulate drinking water facilities.

In the U.S. Senate no legislation has moved. This is the perfect opportunity for Senators Obama and McCain to join together and break the logjam of special interests and infighting that’s preventing the safeguarding of millions of Americans.

Will they get together again? Stranger things have happened…this year. The cynics will say Congress doesn’t have enough time this year but they’re making time for the oil companies who want to expand their off-shore drilling leases. But if Congress does fail to take action, leaders in Congress and our presidential candidates should promise to put this on their agenda to pass in the first 100 days of the 111th Congress.  That’s not as good as passing truly protective legislation now but it might give us another reason to vote this year.

Take Action

— Rick Hind

Rick Hind

By Rick Hind

Rick is the legislative director at Greenpeace USA. Since he joined the organization in 1991, he is a go-to source for journalists covering toxics and chemical security issues. He has been quoted in a wide range of national publications including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, CBS News, NPR, FOX, and many more.

We Need Your Voice. Join Us!

Want to learn more about tax-deductible giving, donating stock and estate planning?

Visit Greenpeace Fund, a nonprofit, 501(c)(3) charitable entity created to increase public awareness and understanding of environmental issues through research, the media and educational programs.