Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Chemical plants' vulnerability at issue


Chemical plants' vulnerability at issue

By Mimi Hall, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON — Chemical plants in the USA are vulnerable targets for terrorists and represent a grave risk to Americans because of weak governmental regulation, a former top Homeland Security adviser to President Bush said Monday.

Richard Falkenrath, who left the White House in May, said in a written statement he expects to deliver to Congress on Wednesday that he bears some responsibility for the Bush administration's policy on chemical plant security.

"Regretfully, some portion of this responsibility clearly belongs to me," Falkenrath says in the written testimony, which he gave to USA TODAY.

The government estimates that there are more than 15,000 chemical facilities nationwide, including more than 100 in heavily populated areas. Such plants can store enough deadly chemicals to kill or injure hundreds of thousands of people.

Falkenrath is among a growing number of officials who are rethinking the government's policy to count on chemical plants to voluntarily beef up their own security.

More than three years after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, Falkenrath will tell the Senate Homeland Security committee that chemical plants and rail cars that transport deadly chemicals are easy, unprotected targets for terrorists.

He is scheduled to be joined at the hearing by the Bush-appointed head of the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, which probes deadly accidents.

Carolyn Merritt, who has never before spoken publicly about chemical security, said she will tell the committee that the federal government needs to do more to protect the public from the intentional or accidental release of deadly chemicals. She cited the January rail car crash in remote Graniteville, S.C., that killed 10 people after 60 tons of chlorine was released.

Merritt's testimony, which she provided to USA TODAY, says there are "serious gaps in the preparations for major chemical releases by companies, emergency responders, government authorities and the public."

In his testimony, Falkenrath says, "I am aware of no other category of potential terrorist targets that presents as great a danger."

He urges Congress to require the Homeland Security Department to maintain an inventory of chemical plants, develop safety standards, verify that plants have met those requirements and impose civil and criminal penalties on those that fail.

Senate Homeland Security committee Chairwoman Susan Collins, R-Maine, said that many plants are in heavily-populated urban areas and "have little more to secure them than a fence around the perimeter."

"Chemical facilities are attractive both as a source of chemicals that could be stolen to build bombs, and for the release of toxic fumes into the surrounding communities," she said.

Homeland Security Department spokeswoman Michelle Petrovich says inspectors have reviewed security at more than 160 of the 300 plants "of immediate concern."

The department encourages plants to follow voluntary security guidelines put forth by the American Chemistry Council, which represents companies accounting for 90% of the nation's industrial chemical production. But Homeland Security officials have no legal authority to force plants to tighten security.

Even the chemistry council favors government regulation to "level the playing field" by requiring all plants to pay for security upgrades, spokeswoman Kate McGloon says.

Rick Hind of Greenpeace says he welcomes Falkenrath's candor. "The biggest threat we face," he says, "is inaction from the federal government."