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Chemical Plant Imbalance

Prepared by: Eben Kaplan
December 11, 2006

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The 9/11 attacks thrust chemical facilities into the spotlight as another potential high-impact target for terrorists. But security experts say the U.S.government has taken inadequate steps to protect such facilities despite well-documented shortcomings. Though most of America’s 15,000 chemical facilities are reasonably secure, some have displayed such serious shortcomings that they could endanger millions of people. A new Backgrounder assesses these vulnerabilities and efforts to address them.

CFR Senior Fellow Stephen E. Flynn recently graded the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and gave chemical plant security the lowest mark. Flynn called it “totally unsatisfactory in light of the threat that some very deadly chemicals can pose.” His assessment is the latest in a string of negative reports on safeguards for chemical plants, including reviews by the Government Accountability Office (PDF) and the Congressional Research Service (PDF).

Anecdotal evidence also points to lax security. Just months after the World Trade Center fell, Carl Prine, a reporter for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, investigated chemical plant security and found troubling results: He gained access to facilities that could endanger more than a million people and in some cases found employees “gave directions to the most sensitive valves and control rooms.” Two years later, 60 Minutes repeated Prine’s experiment, reaching similar results.

In 2003, a White House report on critical infrastructure observed, “There is currently no clear, unambiguous legal or regulatory authority at the federal level to help ensure comprehensive, uniform security standards for chemical facilities.” Instead, a few facilities fell under the jurisdiction of the Maritime Transportation Security Act, or the Bioterrorism Act, while others adhered to standards set by trade associations. Still, many facilities remained unregulated.

Congressional hearings emphasized the severity of the threat, and over the last year several bills circulated through both houses of Congress. These called for greater power within DHS to set standards, and in some cases, emphasized a mandatory shift to “inherently safer technologies” (PDF), which replace the most dangerous chemicals with harmless ones.

Instead, an add-on to an October 2006 appropriations bill preempted a number of pending bipartisan legislative initiatives. The new measure, which will expire after three years, gives DHS authority to review security measures at chemical facilities, but not to mandate requirements. Critics called the bill an end-run around Congress: In a letter to the heads of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees, New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine complained the legislation lacked the teeth of other proposals, and had “never been the subject of congressional hearings, markups, or circulation for public comment.”

Corzine would have preferred that Congress require chemical companies to consider the use of “inherently safer technologies.” This has been law in New Jersey since 2005, when the state became the first to mandate specific chemical security measures.

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