Chemical Security Measures Killed Again

WASHINGTON (April 3, 2003) -- In the push to pass President Bush's nearly $80 billion request to finance the war in Iraq and homeland security, Senate Republicans yesterday used a procedural tactic to thwart an amendment to the funding package offered by Sen. Jon S. Corzine (D-N.J.), which would have reduced the risk of terrorist attacks on the nation's 15,000 chemical facilities. At more than 100 of these facilities, an explosion each could put more than a million people at risk, according to EPA data.

"Folks have been talking about chemical security for months. Everyone knows that the vulnerability of these plants is a major problem. But nobody is acting," lamented Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), a co-sponsor of the proposal. "The time for talk is past. It is time for us to put the security of the American people ahead of special interest lobbyists and pass this bill now."

Why would Senate Republicans fight new safeguards for vulnerable chemical facilities? The most obvious reason is that the chemical industry, despite the recognized risks from a terrorist attack on chemical plants, has resisted legislative efforts to require that chemical plants to take steps to make themselves safer. The industry's aggressive lobbying blitz prevented Sen. Corzine's "Chemical Security Act" from being added to homeland security legislation last year.

For its part, the Bush administration now says it supports mandatory standards. The administration has been promising its own legislative proposal for six months, but still has not delivered. According to an article yesterday in the Wall Street Journal, the administration may finally put forward its bill later this month. The few details that are known about President Bush's plan, however, make it clear that it is a weak response to the problem.

Rather than requiring chemical companies to adopt available and affordable safer technologies, as Corzine's bill would do, Bush's bill is expected to focus exclusively on physical security at plants (i.e., guards and fences). But improving barriers alone won't be enough -- even those facilities whose security has been stepped up since 9/11 remain highly vulnerable. By contrast, a community surrounding a facility using a safer chemical process can rest easier because even if terrorists succeed in causing damage to the plant, the consequences will be far less severe.

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. "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," Rudman said. "I think we have to have security standards, and people are going to have to meet those standards."

"It's mind-boggling that the Bush administration and its Republican allies in Congress keep promising legislation to safeguard Americans from chemical attacks, but once again worked to kill a Congressional proposal that could actually make us safer," said Alys Campaigne, NRDC's legislative director. "Homeland security is an empty promise without chemical plant security."

For more information on why chemical security is needed now, 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.