Friday, August 08, 2003

Bush Administration Earns Failing Grade on Chemical Plant Security

Terrorists didn't need Saddam Hussein's mythical chemical weapons of mass destruction to launch a catastrophic attack against the United States. It turns out they can literally find all the ammunition they need right here -- thanks to the inattention of the Bush administration.

This is a subject about which I've written extensively here and here. But the situation does not seem to be improving, according to an article in yesterday's Government Executive:
Despite the Bush administration's public promises and alarms, the White House has taken almost no action to improve security at any of the nation's 15,000 facilities -- including chemical manufacturing plants, petroleum tank farms, and pesticide companies -- that contain large quantities of potentially deadly chemicals. For that matter, the administration has done virtually nothing even to assess those facilities' vulnerability, even though the dangers are far from theoretical: An accidental leak at a Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, immediately killed between 3,800 and 8,000 people in 1984 and, according to some reports, has since claimed an additional 12,000 lives. Closer to home, an accidental chlorine gas leak at a Honeywell refrigeration plant in Baton Rouge, La., on July 20 sent four workers to the hospital and forced 600 residents to stay indoors.

Counterterrorism experts shudder to think about the number of deaths an intentional release of a toxic chemical could cause. And the Bush administration's inertia heightens their worries.

"These chemical plants have a vulnerability which has a catastrophic characteristic ... that could approximate the World Trade Center," Rand Beers, a White House counterterrorism adviser for 30 years, told National Journal. Dissatisfied with the Bush administration's approach to security, Beers resigned in March and now advises the presidential campaign of Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.
How real is the danger?
Based on reports from the 15,000 facilities required to submit that worst-case-scenario information, the EPA warned that a terrorist attack on any one of the 123 chemical facilities located in densely populated areas could expose 1 million people to toxic chemicals. An attack on one of 700 other facilities could threaten at least 100,000 people. And an attack at one of 3,000 other chemical sites could affect 10,000 people.

It's not that the issue hasn't been on Bush's radar screen. It's just that he keeps changing the channel. Like the proverbial hot potato, the EPA earlier this year backed down before threats of chemical industry lawsuits and tossed responsibility for regulating chemical plant security over to the Department of Homeland Security.
Still struggling to get on its feet, Homeland Security has no authority to require the chemical industry to adopt stricter security measures. It also doesn't have the money or personnel to inspect industrial plants for potential security problems.
True to form, the Bush administration is relying on the voluntary efforts of the chemical industry to protect the country even though "two-thirds of the facilities that use or store high volumes of toxic chemicals...don't belong to those groups, according to EPA officials."

Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, the chemical industry succeeded last year in killing Senator Jon Corzines chemical security bill after a unanimous vote from the Senate Committee considering the bill. Corzine's bill called for (gasp!) regulations that, among other things, would have required chemical facilities to move toward "inherently safer" production -- for example substituting safer chemicals for potentially hazardous ones and reducing the quantity of hazardous chemicals kept in the plant.

Corzine has resubmitted his bill this year, but instead of killing it outright again, the chemical industry has given luke-warm support to a much weaker bill introduced by Senator James Inhofe (D-OK)."Inhofe's bill would not require companies to submit vulnerability or security-improvement plans to Homeland Security. It also would not require companies to consider using alternatives to current chemicals and practices." Their theory is that we simply need to have more guns and higher fences, and keep the contents of chemical plants secret (as if!) -- which means keeping information away from those loose lips at EPA. (And, of course, this also means saying goodbye to citizens' post-Bhopal right to know what's brewing next door.)

Ironically, the Republicans' arguments end up supporting the philosophy behind Corzine's push for inherently safer processes:
Texas Republican Joe Barton, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Air Quality, said that although he's monitoring the situation, he sees no need for tough new chemical security requirements in the aftermath of 9/11.

"The problem you have in an open society is that it's physically impossible to make any large industrial site terrorist-proof," Barton said in an interview. "If there are enough terrorists who are dedicated enough and equipped well enough, they're going to overwhelm everything that you put up short of some sort of Fort Knox -- which doesn't make much sense, given the cost and the relatively remote possibility that any specific site is going to be targeted."

But to requote myself from a previous posting
how much sense does it make to only commit resources to guard a target (with questionable effectiveness) when in most cases it's entirely possible to shrink or even remove the target completely? As outlaw Willie Sutton explained, they robbed banks because that's where the money was. Chemical plants are potential targets for terrorists because that's where the greatest potential for terror is. Take the money out of the banks -- or the catastrophic potential out of chemical plants -- and no one cares.

So how has the industry been doing with its voluntary efforts?
A July 9 survey by the Conference Board, a New York City-based business research group, found that since 9/11, U.S. companies have increased their spending on security an average of only 4 percent. Other studies by the Brookings Institution, Rand, the Congressional Research Service, and the Progressive Policy Institute also raised serious questions about security problems at chemical plants and other high-risk facilities with large amounts of hazardous material.
Newspapers repeatedly report reporters successful attempts to walk unchallenged right into chemical plants and the Government Accounting Office also has serious doubts about the industry's ability to guarantee its own security.

But hey, ultimately we don't need no stinkin' terrorists to blow up our neighborhood chemical plant. We can do it ourselves. At this point, the prospect of terrorist attacks against U.S. chemical facilities is scary, but it's hypothetical. What is real are the hundreds of workers who have died and communities that have been threatened from explosions caused by the very real hazards of reactive chemicals -- which, if you scroll down a bit -- you will see that the Bush administration also refuses to regulate.

The bad news is that we're perfectly capable of causing mass destruction without Saddam Hussein's weapons and without terrorists. But the good news is that the solution to all of these threats is the same: Inherently safer production, better and safer management of chemical plants, and regulations to make sure it all happens.