Monday, May 02, 2005

Congress all talk, little action in securing toxic materials against attack

By Carl Prine

WASHINGTON -- The fight against terrorism might face its toughest obstacle not in the mountains of Afghanistan but on Capitol Hill, where a bitter political dispute continues over how best to shore up decades of shoddy security at America's chemical plants, rail yards and seaports.

A coalition of Republicans and Democrats has coalesced around three key concerns:

Mandating regulations geared to fortifying more than 14,000 chemical plants nationwide against attack.

Upgrading security for the 10 million tons of deadly gases shipped over rails.

Protecting whistleblowers at agencies monitoring America's critical infrastructure from retaliation for speaking out about threats to health and safety.
Congressional hearings last week spotlighted what experts say is lax security at the potentially most catastrophic caches of industrial chemicals four years after the Sept. 11 attacks. Legislators are worried that terrorists will attempt to rupture vats, railcars or ships holding chemicals and explosives that, if released, could kill, injure or displace thousands of Americans.

According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, Congress' investigative arm, there is a "real and credible danger" to chemical facilities and the shippers of their toxic materials. CIA operatives have relayed specific warnings about potential attacks against chemical plants since 9/11.

The chemical danger

On Wednesday, President Bush's former deputy homeland security adviser, Richard Falkenrath, told the Senate Government Affairs Committee that the time had come for the federal government to deliver meaningful legislation to protect chemical plants.

"When you look at all of the different targets for a potential attack in the United States, and you ask yourself which ones present the greatest possibility of mass casualties and are the least well-secured at the present time, one target set flies off the page. And that's chemicals," said Falkenrath, who last year joined the Brookings Institution, a Washington think-tank.

"This is an absolutely inescapable conclusion. It's one that was very apparent to me in my official capacity, and it remains apparent to me now as a private citizen."

Pointing to a series of investigations by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review in 2002 and with CBS' "60 Minutes" in 2003, U.S. Sen. Jon Corzine, D-New Jersey, told the committee that media reports on the inability of private industry to create even the most rudimentary defense against intrusion were "unacceptable."

"Lives are at stake," Corzine said. "We wouldn't tolerate this kind of site security oversight at nuclear power plants. And the public knows this."

The Trib tried to ask Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff how he intended to remedy America's chemical plant, rail and port security problems, but he jogged away from reporters after a Friday address to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. His guards told journalists they weren't allowed to ask questions.

During his speech, Chertoff spoke generally about the need to "take a risk-based approach to the decisions we make, and to look at the consequences, the vulnerabilities and threats." Congress provided Homeland Security with $45 billion to make America safe from terrorist attack last year.

A costly project

Corzine has proposed legislation that would stiffen security at facilities storing catastrophic amounts of chemicals and would ask plants to remove some particularly hazardous gases or explosives from vats close to population centers or consider adding technologies that would quickly contain a toxic plume.

Large chemical manufacturers, however, have balked at Corzine's bill because they believe it would place burdensome regulations on the $350 billion industry, killing jobs and delaying efforts to "harden" sites now from terrorist attack.

Corzine and Falkenrath have praised more than 200 major manufacturers - members of the American Chemistry Council and Synthetic Organic Chemical Manufacturers Association -- for their $3 billion investment in stringing barbed wire, hiring guards, assessing their vulnerabilities and working with their suppliers and customers to safeguard toxic chemicals. But these voluntary efforts represent only about 7 percent of the nation's chemical facilities, and both Republicans and Democrats want to revamp security for every plant.

They favor a different piece of legislation championed by U.S. Sen. James Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, which would "endorse" plans already developed by the major chemical manufacturers and make their voluntary efforts mandatory for the rest of the nation.

The specter of a terrorist attack against a chemical facility outside the umbrella of the 2,400 plants operated by the industry's giants, however, has triggered unprecedented calls by the industry itself for increased federal oversight.

"We need legislation," said American Chemistry Council spokeswoman Kate McGloon after the hearings. "We can't set a nationwide standard. That's the role of government. But we've done a very good job doing everything we can on this issue, and it's rewarding to see so many in Congress and Homeland Security pointing out what we've accomplished."

Party moderates are brokering a compromise on the legislation, working closely with centrist Democrats such as Corzine and Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut to create laws that balance security and jobs.

"Based on the testimony we received today, it appears that federal legislation is needed to better secure our nation's chemical facilities, and to better prepare in case of a successful terrorist attack," said U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who chaired the Wednesday hearings.

An attempt by Inhofe and other senators last year to reach compromise with House leaders on a chemical bill died in committee. A measure similar to Corzine's drafted by U.S. Rep. Edward J. Markey, D-Massachusetts, failed last week in committee.

The rail problem

A tougher problem is America's vast rail network. On any given day, 82 tankers of chlorine gas and other lethal airborne toxics move along the nation's tracks, according to the Federal Rail Administration. Congress wants to know how security can be improved.

In February, arguing that Homeland Security had failed to safeguard rail shipments of deadly gases adequately, the Washington, D.C., council banned the cargo from city limits. A study commissioned by the city council found that one ruptured chlorine tank car could injure or kill 100,000 residents in a half-hour.

A federal court recently upheld the rerouting of hazardous materials, but rail owners have appealed, saying diverting these shipments over longer distances or onto highways hikes the risk of accidents or crashes and shifts the threat of terrorism to other communities, such as Pittsburgh.

"It doesn't help security. It shifts the risk from one area to another, and it does nothing to address security. You would be moving from well-maintained, high density rail lines to ones that are not as well-equipped to handle this material," said spokesman Tom White of the Association of American Railroads.

"You're increasing the distance that these chemicals must move, and that's bad from a safety standpoint. And what happens if other cities adopt these laws? You get to the point where you have a patchwork of regulations, and you've made it impossible to ship chemicals vital to American industry by rail. How does that help public safety?"

But environmentalists who helped draft the Washington, D.C., law believe their ban will hold and similar initiatives will spread to other cities.

"No one gave us a chance on the rail security legislation, but we won on that," said Greenpeace legislative director Rick Hind, a key architect of the law. "It will be the same with chemical plant security, eventually.

"Look, it took 10 years to get the Clean Air Act. But George W. Bush's father did the right thing and signed it into law. It's a bit more outrageous that it's taken this long after 9/11 on such an important issue."

"Unfortunately, I have to think back to Bhopal," Hind said, referring to the 1984 gas leak at an Indian pesticide plant that killed 3,800 people. "It took Bhopal to get legislation that started addressing safety issues for communities living next to chemical plants. Hopefully, it won't take another disaster to get a law that will make these same communities safe from terrorists."
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