On February 19, Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge unveiled the Bush administration's new "Ready Campaign" to advise Americans what they can do to protect themselves against terrorism. The program includes public service announcements that encourage families to take appropriate safety measures in preparation for a possible radiation "dirty bomb," biological or chemical attack. In the event of a chemical attack, for instance, the new government website explains how to seal off a room with plastic sheeting and duct tape, and gives recommendations about how to flee from the area.
While we applaud any effort to better inform the public about these dangers and about ways to cope in such a situation, we cannot help but observe that the Bush administration has failed to take meaningful steps to reduce the likelihood that Americans will need to run or shield themselves from a toxic release caused by an attack on a chemical plant. This is particularly disappointing because it is a huge lost opportunity. After all, thousands of chemical plants could make (and some have already made) changes in their materials or processes that would make the plants inherently safer -- meaning they could reduce or eliminate the possibility of a terrorist attack causing a catastrophic chemical release.CHEMICAL INSECURITY
Nearly a year-and-a-half since the 9/11 tragedy, the government has done little to nothing to bolster chemical plant security. The Bush administration stood by last year while industry lobbyists scuttled the Chemical Security Act, introduced by Senator Corzine (D-NJ), which passed unanimously by the Committee on the Environment and Public Works. That bill would require chemical companies to assess and address their vulnerability to attack.
Likewise, the homeland security legislation passed last year lacks any requirement that "at risk" facilities actually do something to secure themselves and reduce their attractiveness as a potential target. As part of that legislation, the White House lobbied for and secured sweeping secrecy provisions to protect the very companies that could be putting our communities at risk.
To date, the administration's strategy for securing the nation's vulnerable chemical plants from possible terrorist attack amounts to little more than pleading for voluntary efforts by industry and hoping for the best. Why ignore such a critical component of homeland security?
- Maybe chemical plants aren't really dangerous. WRONG.
According to EPA's own figures, there are over 100 chemical plants around the country that each could put a million or more people at risk if attacked, and many more that could threaten thousands of people. A report by the Army Surgeon General ranked an attack on a chemical plant second only to a widespread biological attack in terms of the hazard to the public. On February 12, the National Infrastructure Protection Center warned that "Al Qa'ida operatives . . . may attempt to launch conventional attacks against the U.S. nuclear/chemical-industrial infrastructure to cause contamination, disruption, and terror."
- Maybe companies are doing a good job without regulation. WRONG.
That's what the chemical industry would like the public to believe. In fact, a series of investigative reports by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review confirmed that lax security is rampant at chemical facilities, to the point that a reporter gained free access to many sensitive areas at more than 60 chemical plants -- including tanks where poisons are stored. Meanwhile, "report cards" published by the Washington Post and Newsweek for the anniversary of the 9/11 tragedy gave the industry "D" and "F" grades, respectively, for failing to reduce its vulnerability to attack. "Despite repeated warnings that terrorists could turn materials in chemical plants into weapons of mass destruction," stated the Washington Post, "the Bush administration and Congress have not agreed on ways to reduce the industry's vulnerabilities." As Newsweek pointed out, the chemical threat "is a thousand-points-of-vulnerability risk that has remained largely below the radar One blown-up plant, truck or train, and the press will be calling for the scalps of those who let it happen."
- Maybe chemical facilities cannot be made safer. WRONG.
At chemical plants near population centers, the best way to prevent terrorism is to reduce the attractiveness of the facilities as targets. Inherently safer technologies can be employed which rely on fewer or less toxic chemicals, which do not require significant on-site storage of dangerous toxins, or which reduce dangerous pressures and temperatures. For instance, the Blue Plains sewage treatment plant in Washington, DC eliminated its use of chlorine gas -- which, if released in a terrorist attack, could have blanketed the capital in a toxic cloud -- in a matter of weeks. The plant switched to sodium hypochlorite bleach, which has far less potential for airborne off-site impact.
Providing citizens with information on potential terrorist attacks and offering self-help tips to respond to such an emergency makes sense. "Terrorists seek to turn our neighborhoods into battlefields," said Ridge in his announcement of the administration's "Ready Campaign" (as quoted by the Washington Post). "That is why individual citizens have an important role to play."
But doesn't the government share in the responsibility to reduce our risks? Especially when one of the greatest risks to millions of Americans is the very real threat that terrorists will select as a target one of the nation's thousands of chemical facilities.
"It's good to be ready, but it's better to be safe," said NRDC attorney Jon Devine. "The sad fact is that Americans are still waiting for the Bush administration to begin addressing the threat of terrorist attacks on chemical facilities in our own backyards."
The Natural Resources Defense Council is a national, non-profit organization of scientists, lawyers and environmental specialists dedicated to protecting public health and the environment. Founded in 1970, NRDC has more than 550,000 members nationwide, served from offices in New York, Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco.