EPA's Lax Chemical Security Plan

WASHINGTON (October 2, 2002) -- At a press event today, EPA Administrator Christie Whitman unveiled her agency's Strategic Plan for Homeland Security, which lays out EPA's role in meeting its homeland security responsibilities. Unfortunately, when it comes to protecting the public from the very real threat of a terrorist attack on the nation's chemical plants, EPA's plan is a complete failure.

EPA's strategy amounts to little more than pleading for industry's voluntary efforts and hoping for the best. Apparently, EPA plans to "work with" industry associations to encourage them to implement security enhancements, and to develop guidance for corporations to consider in deciding how, if at all, to address their vulnerabilities to terror attack. Entirely missing is any requirement that at risk facilities actually do something to secure themselves and reduce their attractiveness as a potential target.

The agency's approach is familiar; in recent weeks, EPA has issued two "Chemical Security Advisories," imploring companies to take extra care to guard against terrorism, but not demanding any action.

Why is the EPA (and the Bush administration) choosing a voluntary approach to this critical component of homeland security?

  • Maybe chemical plants aren't really dangerous. WRONG.

    According to EPA's own figures, there are 123 chemical plants around the country that each could place 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.

  • Maybe EPA doesn't have the authority to require companies to act. WRONG.

    The Clean Air Act (Section 112(r)) authorizes EPA to issue regulations to prevent any "unanticipated emission of a regulated substance or other extremely hazardous substance into the ambient air from a stationary source." It also imposes a "general duty" of precaution on sources, directing them "to design and maintain a safe facility" in order to prevent dangerous releases. Because few actions are as unanticipated as terrorism and because operating a safe facility includes reducing its vulnerability to attack, this language gives EPA ample authority to force companies to take steps to secure their facilities.

  • Maybe companies are doing a good job without regulation. WRONG.

    That's what the chemical industry would have the public 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, recent "report cards" published by the Washington Post and Newsweek gave the industry "D" and "F" grades, respectively, for failing to reduce its vulnerability to attack.

  • Maybe EPA is working on other fronts to force companies to act. WRONG.

    A bill called the Chemical Security Act (S. 1602) passed unanimously out of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in July. The legislation would require facilities to assess their vulnerabilities and reduce or eliminate them, and would specifically mandate that companies consider improving the inherent safety of their operations to the extent practicable. Rather than endorse this commonsense bill, EPA has remained mute (as has the Bush administration). To make matters worse, the agency recently undermined the chemical security bill by announcing publicly that it hopes to develop alternative legislation, even while conceding that it did not have a specific timetable for doing so.

Much to the delight of industry, EPA has put forth a "do nothing" strategy for securing the nation's vulnerable chemical plants from possible terrorist attack. Feel free to contact NRDC for more information.

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 500,000 members nationwide, served from offices in New York, Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco.