On chemical plant security

By Andrew Hammond

In the five years following September 11, our Congress has not passed a single piece of legislation to protect the 15,000 chemical plants in the United States. More than 100 of these plants could, if attacked, endanger the lives of more than a million people.

Investigative reporting by Carl Prine at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review has shown that gates to these plants are unlocked or wide open, fences around the facilities are falling apart, and tanks filled with deadly chemicals remain unprotected. On several occasions, Prine has walked into facilities, sat on the tanks and waited until someone saw him and asked what he was doing.

This issue hits close to home, so please forgive my frustration. I grew up in New Jersey—the state with the highest population density in the country and also 140 chemical plants, nearly one third of which produce some of the most hazardous chemicals found in chemical plants, such as hydrofluoric acid and chlorine. Eighteen of the most toxic plants can be found in my native Bergen County and the two neighboring counties, Passaic and Hudson.

One of those 18 is in Kearny, New Jersey. The Kuehne Chemical Plant in Kearny is often labeled one of the most vulnerable terrorist targets in the country. The plant’s in-house study of potential risks says that a rupture from one chlorine-filled railcar at the factory or a puncturing of one of the storage tanks could release a deadly gas cloud over a 14-mile radius.

I googled the distance between the plant and the former site of the World Trade Center in New York City. It’s 10.3 miles away.

According to the report, 12 million people in New Jersey and New York would be at risk.

Earlier this month, Congress had the courage to finally pass protective legislation. But don’t go writing thank you letters to the Republican leadership. The chemical plant lobby gutted the legislation.

In essence, Congress passed a regulatory bill that has neither the authority nor the resources to regulate anything. Senator Lautenberg of New Jersey called the final version “industry-written and incomplete.” Senator Obama, who with Senators Lautenberg, Durbin, and Menendez sponsored comprehensive legislation, said that the legislation that passed “falls well short of fixing the problems.” Chemical experts called the provisions “empty.”

Stephen Flynn, a homeland security expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, put it this way: “These plants are the equivalent of weapons of mass destruction prepositioned in some of the most congested parts of our country.”

Don’t be surprised by the chemical plant lobby’s influence. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the chemical industry and related manufacturers donated over $29.9 million to campaigns over the past four election cycles. Eighty percent of that money went to Republicans.

That is not to say that the industry likes Republicans more than Democrats. They like Republicans because the Republicans control legislation on the Hill, and they see their donations as investments, and they’ve gotten their money’s worth. In the process, they have endangered millions of American lives.

In 2005, the Secretary of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff, showed up at the American Chemical Council to tell industry representatives not to worry. He said the federal government would not do anything that would “destroy the businesses we’re trying to protect.”

And he was right. Instead of regulating chemical plants, the legislation the President signed into law a few weeks ago encourages chemical plants to adopt “voluntary” security measures. One has to marvel at regulatory legislation whose sole purpose is to tell the target of regulation that they should feel free to regulate themselves.

The problem is that chemical plants won’t regulate themselves. As Flynn said in Newsweek this month, the legislation did not address the “systemic vulnerability” of the industry because it is “very difficult to invest in security, because security has costs that put you at a competitive disadvantage. Even if you are somebody who wants to do the right thing if you know your neighbors to the right and left are not doing the right thing, because they’ve made the financial choice to live by the edge, then they’re able to sell the product cheaper.”

In short, chemical plants won’t self-regulate because they lose out to their competitors. Only through a wholesale regulation of the industry will we achieve the results our country deserves.

So passing legislation that would drastically improve our nation’s security is a top priority of this Administration and this Congress. That is, unless lobbyists decide to use their veto.