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Senate Panel Backs Plant Security Bill

Counterterrorism, chemical accident experts urge senators to pass mandatory plant security bill

May 9, 2005 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 83, Issue 19

U.S. is said to be "rich" in unsecured chemical storage and transportation facilities.
U.S. is said to be "rich" in unsecured chemical storage and transportation facilities.

Support for federal, mandatory chemical plant security legislation to counter the threat of a terrorist attack was unanimously voiced by security and accident prevention officials speaking at a hearing before the Senate Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs Committee on April 27.

The four panel members laid out a grim picture of the potential terrorist threat to some 15,000 facilities that store and use large quantities of dangerous chemicals. They also warned of a lack of security for chemical railroad tank cars and a national failure to adequately prepare for and respond to a terrorist attack using industrial chemicals as a weapon.

In the case of transportation of hazardous chemicals, the federal government has authority to require mandatory security standards but has not done so, the speakers said. For the chemical industry, a law is needed to move beyond voluntary actions that the speakers found inadequate.

The hearing was the first before this committee, which has jurisdiction over the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). It is expected to be one of a series of hearings on chemical plant security, committee Chairman Susan M. Collins (R-Maine) said.

The hearings' goal, Collins said in an opening statement, is to determine whether the risk of a terrorist attack warrants legislation and what that legislation should be. As the hearing drew to a close several hours later, however, Collins said she was "convinced that chemical security has not received the attention it deserves, considering the vulnerabilities involved. I am inclined to believe, based on testimony today, that we do need strong federal legislation in this area, but we also need legislation that doesn't put an unreasonable burden on the chemical industry."

Balancing public safety and the burden to industry in a way that satisfies the chemical industry, Congress, the Bush Administration, and a host of public interest groups may not be easy.

From left, Falkenrath, Flynn, Merritt
From left, Falkenrath, Flynn, Merritt

For nearly four years, the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee discussed chemical plant security and eventually cleared legislation that required terrorist vulnerability assessments but left them to be done by chemical companies. The legislative approach mirrored a security program run by the American Chemistry Council for its member companies. ACC's program turns compliance and oversight over to company-selected third-party auditors. The results are secret.

THE ENVIRONMENT & Public Works Committee was deeply split over the need for independent oversight of the adequacy of the company-prepared security plans as well as whether "inherently safer design" criteria and reduction of toxic chemicals should be encouraged by law. No agreement on language was reached, and committee Chairman James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) did not bring a bill to the Senate floor (C&EN, Oct. 27, 2003, page 29).

Now Collins' committee, which has jurisdiction over DHS, is in charge, rather than Inhofe's, which oversees the Environmental Protection Agency. The shift makes it much more likely that legislation will reach the Senate floor.

Beginning the hearing was New Jersey Sen. Jon S. Corzine (D), who said a "worst case" release of toxic chemicals at any of 11 New Jersey plants would threaten more than a million people in the highly populated and industrialized state.

Corzine pointed to apocalyptic federal studies showing that a chemical release from an accident or attack at any of 123 chemical facilities in 24 states would threaten more than 1 million people and that, in 39 states, there was at least one facility where a chemical release could harm more than 100,000 people.

Corzine introduced chemical security legislation within a month of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. His bill was opposed by the chemical industry, the Bush Administration, and most Republicans on Inhofe's committee, primarily because of requirements that companies attempt to adopt inherently safer processes or reduce their use of toxic chemicals.

Corzine has toned down this provision and said such "alternative production approaches" should not be mandated but should be examined and achieved where possible.

Hearing panelists were universal in their criticism of the tardiness of federal security requirements for chemical companies. "We are a nation at war," said Stephen E. Flynn, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and retired U.S. Coast Guard commander. America, he said, is "target rich. We have 15,000 weapons of mass destruction littered around the U.S.

"We have no idea how well-guarded they are or if they are guarded at all," he added. Al Qaeda has no need to smuggle weapons of mass destruction into the U.S., he said, because there already exists a "vast menu of pre-positioned weapons" in highly populated areas next to critical infrastructures.

"How this could be so off the list of priorities for more than three years since 9/11 is simply extraordinary," Flynn added.

He believes that Al Qaeda or another terrorist organization will carry out a major attack in the U.S. within five years, and at the top of his list of likely targets are chemical plants.

THAT VIEW was underscored by Richard A. Falkenrath, visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former White House and DHS security adviser. He said, "No significant reduction in the inherent vulnerability of the most dangerous chemical plants has occurred since the 2001 terrorist attacks." In part, he blamed himself along with other Administration officials for the lack of results.

Falkenrath particularly cited the threat from large quantities of industrial chemicals that pose a toxic inhalation hazard--chlorine, phosgene, ammonia, methyl bromide, and hydrochloric and other acids--stored and used around the country. These common industrial chemicals, he warned, are extraordinarily dangerous, and several are identical to weapons used in World War I.

"I am aware of no other category of potential terrorist targets that present as great a danger as toxic-inhalation-hazard industrial chemicals," Falkenrath said. The chemical sector "flies off the page" when compared to other potential terrorist targets, he said, because of its lack of security and the potential to cause mass casualties.

The need for national chemical industry security was also stressed by John B. Stephenson, Government Accountability Office director of natural resources and environment. He told the committee that two years ago, GAO urged DHS to develop a national chemical sector security strategy, but DHS had yet to do so.

Also distressing was a "troubling" lack of preparation among emergency responders around the nation, said Carolyn W. Merritt, chairman of the Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board.

Merritt presented a list of accidents investigated by the safety board that found local emergency planners unprepared and poorly equipped to respond to a lethal chemical release, no matter the cause.

Residents, she said, were unsure what to do when ordered to evacuate or to shelter in place; in some cases, emergency responders were even unaware of which plants were handling dangerous chemicals in large quantities.

"The chemical board's investigations," she said, "at a minimum, point to the need for a comprehensive national review of emergency preparedness."

Among security recommendations, speakers called first for a highly detailed inventory of every chemical facility and conveyance in the country. Then the inventory should be ranked in a tiered system with different security standards based on risk. Certification and third-party verification that mandatory security actions were taken would be required, as well as enforcement penalties when necessary.

Inherently safer design opportunities should be encouraged by offering companies a chance to move to less onerous tiers by eliminating or reducing storage and use of lethal chemicals, Falkenrath said.

Like others at the hearing, Falkenrath applauded voluntary programs like ACC's but said they were insufficient because of their limited scope. Panelists also urged that any approach have rigorous oversight of industry compliance to ensure that safety standards are uniform among companies in the highly fragmented chemical sector.

Future hearings are expected to offer the views of DHS and chemical companies, several senators said.


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