Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Lots of Chemicals, Little Reaction

The New York Times
September 22, 2004

Lots of Chemicals, Little Reaction

Washington — While President Bush continues to make terrorism and domestic security the centerpiece of his campaign, he has made little mention of one of the most urgent threats to our safety: the risk that terrorists could cause thousands, even millions, of deaths by sabotaging one of the 15,000 industrial chemical plants across the United States.

The dangers from chemical plant mishaps are clear. According to data compiled by Greenpeace International, the 1984 accident at an Union Carbide insecticide plant in Bhopal, India, has caused 20,000 deaths and injuries to 200,000 people. A terrorist group could cause even greater harm by entering a plant in the United States and setting off an explosion that produces a deadly gas cloud.

The administration knows the dangers. Soon after the 9/11 attacks, Senator Jon Corzine, Democrat of New Jersey, highlighted the issue with legislation requiring chemical plants to enhance security and use safer chemicals and technologies when feasible. (Such safer substitutes are widely available.)

A study by the Army surgeon general, conducted soon after 9/11, found that up to 2.4 million people could be killed or wounded by a terrorist attack on a single chemical plant. In February 2003, the government's National Infrastructure Protection Center warned that chemical plants in the United States could be Qaeda targets. Investigations by The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and the CBS program "60 Minutes" have highlighted lax or nonexistent security at chemical plants, with gates unlocked or wide open and chemical tanks unguarded.

The Environmental Protection Agency under Christie Whitman did its part to evaluate the threat, identifying 123 chemical facilities where an accident or attack could threaten more than a million people, and 7,605 plants that threatened more than 1,000 people. The agency determined that it could use the Clean Air Act to compel chemical plants to increase security.

Following the Corzine approach, the agency also planned to promote the use of less hazardous chemicals. But the Bush administration overruled the initiative, and in December the president announced that chemical security was now the province of the new Department of Homeland Security, under Secretary Tom Ridge.

As The Wall Street Journal disclosed last month, Homeland Security tried to reduce the threat of catastrophic attack with the stroke of a pen. The department announced that the number of plants that threatened more than 1,000 people was actually only 4,391, and the number that endangered more than a million people was not 123 but two.

Mr. Ridge has set in motion plans to install security cameras at chemical plants in seven states - but not in some high-threat states like Florida, Ohio and Minnesota. Although the department visits plants and offers advice, unlike the E.P.A., it doesn't have the power to enforce security measures and relies instead on voluntary efforts by the industry. Without enforceable requirements, chemical firms will remain reluctant to put sufficient safeguards in place, for fear that their competitors will scrimp on security and thus be able to undercut them on price.

Industry groups have lobbied intensely against the Corzine legislation. While reluctant to invest in plant safety, some of these companies and their executives have found the resources to help pay for the Republican campaign.

For the Bush administration, it seems, homeland security is critical except when it conflicts with the wishes of supporters who own chemical plants.

Rick Hind is legislative director of Greenpeace's toxics campaign. David Halperin, a lawyer, has served on the staffs of the National Security Council and the Senate Intelligence Committee.