Two years after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, various federal agencies are sounding the same alarm. Scores of chemical plants around the country are potential targets for terrorists, and the industry not doing enough to protect the public. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency has identified more than 100 chemical plants that each could endanger a million or more people if attacked, and many more that could threaten thousands of people.1 Meanwhile, the Army surgeon general has warned that the only threat to the public greater than an assault on a chemical plant would be a widespread biological attack.2 And earlier this year, 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."3
The chemical accidents that occur at these facilities on a near-daily basis4 reveal that the processes in which toxins are made, used and stored are often compromised.5 Indeed, an EPA report found that "from mid-1994 to mid-1999 there were about 1,900 serious accidents that caused 33 deaths, 8,300 injuries, and the evacuation or sheltering of 221,000 people. These accidents cost the affected facilities more than $1 billion in direct damages and two to four times that in business interruption losses."6
Physical security at these plants is inadequate. Last year, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review ran an investigative series that found grossly deficient security at dozens of chemical facilities. A Tribune-Review reporter gained access to many sensitive areas at more than 60 chemical plants -- including tanks where poisons were stored.7 Likewise, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry in the Department of Health and Human Services found in 1999 that "security at [U.S.] chemical plants ranged from fair to very poor."8
Fortunately, these dangers and vulnerabilities are avoidable. One key strategy for preventing terrorism at chemical plants near large urban areas would be to reduce the facilities' attractiveness as targets. Companies could employ inherently safer technology by using fewer or less toxic chemicals, reducing on-site storage of dangerous toxins, and utilizing processes that avoid dangerous pressures and temperatures.
Two bills have been introduced to address chemical plant risks. New Jersey Sen. Jon Corzine's "Chemical Security Act" (S. 157) is a serious, but modest, set of requirements to improve safety and security at vulnerable facilities. Conversely, Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe's "Chemical Facilities Security Act" (S. 994), backed by the Bush administration,9 would do little to improve community safety in the event of an attack. Below is a side-by-side analysis of these bills.
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.
1. James V. Grimaldi and Guy Gugliotta, "Chemical Plants Feared as Targets," Washington Post, Dec. 16, 2001.
2. Eric Pianin, "Study Assesses Risk of Attack on Chemical Plant," Washington Post, Mar. 12, 2002.
3. National Infrastructure Protection Center, "Homeland Security Information Update," Feb. 12, 2003.
5. U.S. Department of Justice, "Assessment of the Increased Risk of Terrorist or Other Criminal Activity Associated with Posting Off-Site Consequence Analysis Information on the Internet," ("DOJ OCA Report") p. 22, Apr. 18, 2000. ("The fact that chemical releases have occurred with deadly results because of accident[s] or negligence affirms that such consequences could possibly result from intentional criminal acts.").
6. EPA, "Assessment of the Incentives Created by Public Disclosure of Off-Site Consequence Analysis Information for Reduction in the Risk of Accidental Releases," p. 2, Apr. 18, 2000.
7. Carl Prine, "Lax Security Exposes Lethal Chemical Supplies," Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Apr. 7, 2002; see also DOJ OCA Report at 30 ("Security at many industrial facilities is generally not as substantial as the security at other comparable potential terrorist targets that could cause a harmful release," such as nuclear facilities); "EPA Security Review Finds Shortfalls At Some High-Risk Chemical Plants," Inside EPA, Mar. 5, 2003. ("An EPA review shows that many high-risk chemical facilities have not adopted adequate security measures, according to EPA officials involved in the effort.")
8. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, "Industrial Chemicals and Terrorism: Human Health Threat Analysis, Mitigation and Prevention," 1999.
9. Press Release, "Inhofe, Miller Introduce Bipartisan Bill to Strengthen Homeland Security," May 2, 2003. ("I am pleased that this bill . . . has the support of the Bush administration.").