Chemical engineering

Enviros and national security hawks alike want Homeland Security to help protect the nation's chemical plants. But some industry-friendly Republicans are resisting.

Published July 17, 2006 10:00AM (EDT)

An attack on one of the many toxic-chemical plants in the United States could endanger more than a million people. Environmentalists, security experts and even the Army surgeon general have been raising the alarm about this threat since Sept. 11, 2001, but Congress has yet to do anything about it. Its latest efforts are being held up by none other than Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., who never passes up a chance to stick a finger in the eye of environmentalists -- even, apparently, at the expense of national security.

There are 123 chemical facilities nationwide, ranging from paper mills to refineries, that each could put at least 1 million people at risk of injury or death if their chemical contents were unleashed into the air, according to a 2001 analysis by the Environmental Protection Agency. Some 700 facilities each could put at least 100,000 at risk. The Army surgeon general, in a 2001 report, came up with even higher numbers, estimating that up to 2.4 million Americans could be injured or killed if terrorists hit a chemical plant in a densely populated area.

Last month, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee unanimously approved a bill that would grant the Department of Homeland Security authority to mandate tighter security at chemical facilities. The Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Act, sponsored by committee chairwoman Susan Collins, R-Maine, and ranking member Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., has broad bipartisan support. (A similar bill in the House, introduced by Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Calif., is undergoing markup.)

Days after the Homeland Security Committee OK'd the bill, however, Inhofe blocked it from proceeding to the Senate floor, claiming that it could hamper industry by forcing companies to switch from highly toxic chemicals to safer substances. Inhofe then held a June 21 hearing in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which he chairs, where he argued that environmental groups are exploiting the national security argument in order to force these costly burdens on business.

Chemical companies "do not need the federal government coming in and telling them specifically how to manufacture products," Inhofe said in his opening statement at the hearing. He took issue, in particular, with the possibility that the DHS might require the substitution of less toxic chemicals -- commonly referred to as "inherently safer technology" -- at certain facilities. "IST is an environmental concept that dates back more than a decade [to] the extremist environmental community ... It was only after 9/11 that they decided to play upon the fears of the nation and repackage IST as a panacea to all of our security problems."

Thing is, no IST requirements are contained in the bill. A provision proposed by Lieberman that would have required the nation's most vulnerable facilities to assess safer alternatives was rejected by Collins and the majority of senators on her committee. (The House version of the bill likewise includes no mention of IST requirements.)

"Sen. Collins is perplexed by Sen. Inhofe's objections," said Alissa Southworth, spokeswoman for the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. "We're looking at this as a homeland security bill, not an environmental protection bill." Collins staffers say the senator is not opposed to IST per se, but believes it should be addressed in an environmental bill, not a security bill.

With this line of reasoning, Collins echoes Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff, who, in discussing chemical plant safety this spring, said, "We have to be careful not to move from what is a security-based focus ... into one that tries to broaden into achieving environmental ends that are unrelated to security."

Leslie Phillips, Democratic communications director at the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, counters that safer chemical alternatives by definition have national security benefits: "If a terrorist strikes a plant and you're using safer chemicals, the likelihood of destruction to the surrounding community would be reduced." According to Phillips, Lieberman plans to reintroduce a version of his amendment when the bill goes to the Senate floor, likely within a few weeks.

Andy Igrejas, director of environmental health programs at National Environmental Trust, applauds the Lieberman amendment. "It's intellectually dishonest to say safer chemicals don't have security implications," Igrejas said. "I think [Lieberman] can very persuasively make the case that the solution can't just be putting higher fences and better guards at chemical facilities. We've got to preempt toxic injury in the event that security is breached."

In April, the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, issued a report, "Preventing Toxic Terrorism," which claimed that some 284 facilities in 47 states have already voluntarily and affordably switched from hazardous substances to less toxic chemicals. "Not only do these safer substances protect employee and community health, more than half of the facilities we polled actually reported net reductions in costs because they were able to scale back investments in physical security and safety measures," said the report's author, Paul Orum.

Though disappointed by the absence of IST language from the current version of the Senate bill, Igrejas still sees positive aspects to the legislation. "To its credit, this bill would for the first time implement a mandatory program to enforce security at our nations' chemical facilities, replacing the woefully inadequate voluntary program that has been in place until now," he said. "That matters, it's helpful."

There's also something to be said for what the bill doesn't do: The committee rejected a provision proposed by Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, that would have restricted public access to information about the security of chemical facilities -- something the chemical industry has been lobbying for on the grounds that more secrecy would improve safety. "People who live in the shadow of chemical plants should have the right to know how safe those plants are and they should be allowed to challenge Homeland Security actions -- or inactions -- if they believe their safety is in jeopardy," said Lieberman in a statement.

The Collins bill also maintains states' rights to implement stronger safety measures than those imposed by Homeland Security, despite opposition from industry. The House version, by comparison, has a provision that would preempt such states' rights.

But Rick Hind of Greenpeace isn't impressed by either the House or the Senate version. "Both versions of this bill are blatantly industry-friendly," he said. "Our only hope is that they'll be salvaged on the Senate floor or in conference, if they are strengthened with additional provisions." Hind points out that Collins and four other committee members who voted against Lieberman's amendment have each accepted more than $100,000 in PAC donations from companies required to report chemical disaster scenarios to the EPA. "I'd say that speaks volumes about their decision to reject the IST provision," he says.

Of course, Big Chemical is not the only industry with a vested interest in convincing the American public that the safety of its products is an effete "environmental" concern. But chemical security, like energy independence and global warming, is an issue where the goals of national security, public safety and sustainability neatly overlap. Inhofe may still find some small political advantage in stoking yesterday's antagonisms, but around him, the tide is turning.

By Amanda Griscom Little

Amanda Griscom Little is a columnist for Grist Magazine. Her articles on energy, technology and the environment have appeared in publications ranging from Rolling Stone to the New York Times Magazine.

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