Bush's Voluntary Plan for Chemical Security: Not Worth the Wait

WASHINGTON (April 8, 2003) -- Nearly 19-months after 9/11, the Bush administration is developing a program aimed at addressing the threat of terrorism at chemical plants around the country. The White House apparently is now working with Republican leaders in Congress on legislation to "fix" the problem, rather than support the Chemical Security Act (S.157), sponsored by Senator Jon Corzine (D-NJ). Corzine's bill would require companies to assess their vulnerabilities and take basic steps to reduce them. (See the Washington Post story in NRDC's news archive)

Here's the catch: Although there are some 15,000 major chemical facilities nationwide (including over 100 that, if attacked, would each put a million or more Americans at risk), President Bush is seeking only "voluntary compliance" by industry. And rather than reduce or eliminate the hazardous chemicals that offer terrorists targets, the president's plan is directed only at beefing up physical security (more guards, bigger fences, etc.) at these facilities.

"We're disappointed in the Bush administration's weak response to this important aspect of homeland security," says Jon Devine of NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council). "Bolstering on-site security measures is important, but people won't rest easier until chemical companies at least make modest improvements to make their facilities less likely terrorist targets."

The White House plan would perpetuate a false sense of security, and here's why:

(1) NO HAZARD REDUCTION: The Bush proposal will not require chemical facilities to implement inherently safer technologies, even when a low-hazard alternative is cheap and easy. Letting companies ignore available and affordable process changes that make them less vulnerable to attack is irresponsible.

(2) NO FEDERAL OVERSIGHT: We expect that the administration will allow facilities preparing vulnerability assessments and response plans to keep them on-site unless the Department of Homeland Security demands them. A lack of meaningful federal oversight poses obvious problems. The most notable is that it creates a real "chicken-and-egg problem" whereby the government will not know if a facility is at risk from terrorism - and therefore know to review the facility's assessment/plan - unless it bothers to ask companies for this information in the first place.

(3) INDUSTRY IN CONTROL: The American Chemistry Council has been pushing for its so-called "Responsible Care" security code as an alternative to complying with any legislative standards. The industry code emphasizes physical security and does not require even widely available and affordable hazard reduction techniques. Moreover, the government has not been asked to review or sign off on this code. Finally, the ACC code lacks meaningful standards or compliance mechanisms to identify members who fail to take adequate steps to secure themselves.

(4) EPA LEFT OUT: The White House proposal would hand responsibility to the Department of Homeland Security, without more than nominal involvement by the Environmental Protection Agency. But of course, EPA has expertise with chemical manufacturing processes and methods for reducing their hazardousness.

Relying on the chemical industry to police itself runs counter to the advice of former Republican Senator Warren Rudman, recognized as one of the nation's experts on homeland security. According to Rudman, "The federal role needs to be to set standards and make sure those standards are observed just as we do with clean air and clean water and workplace standards. I think we have to have security standards, and people are going to have to meet those standards."

With millions of American lives at risk in the event of an attack on a chemical plant, the Bush administration should not simply trust companies to voluntarily put public safety above profit motive. For that reason, NRDC continues to support passage of Sen. Corzine's "Chemical Security Act."

For more information, see NRDC's fact sheet

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.