The Hole in Our Homeland Security: Why Chemical Security Legislation is Needed Now

In neighborhoods across America, there are 15,000 industrial facilities that use and store huge quantities of hazardous chemicals. Preventing terrorists from turning these chemical plants into weapons of mass destruction must be a national priority.

Who says?
Reports by the Homeland Security Department, Justice Department, General Accounting Office, U.S. Army's Surgeon General, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Control, and others reveal that chemical plants are attractive terrorist targets, that their physical security is ineffective, that they can be made safer, and that voluntary efforts by industry are insufficient.

How dangerous?
In the event of a chemical release, there are more than 100 facilities that would place at risk at least 1 million people; there are 700 facilities that would put at least 100,000 at risk; and there are 3,000 facilities that would put 10,000 at risk (according to the U.S. EPA).

What's being done?
"There is no question that when we take a look at a chemical facility," warned Homeland Security Department Secretary Tom Ridge, "the possibility that terrorists could use that economic asset and turn it into a weapon is something that we need to be concerned about and are concerned about." Despite tough talk by the Bush administration, the government has failed to take meaningful action to require chemical security. The industry claims it has boosted protections since 9/11, but security at most chemical facilities ranges from poor to non-existent, as confirmed by various federal studies and independent investigations. As a result, federal, state and local governments have needed to deploy the Coast Guard, the National Guard, and law enforcement to help protect these plants. Politicians, government officials, independent experts, and even industry lobbyists now agree that mandatory protection standards are needed.

What's the solution?
The best way to safeguard Americans is for chemical facilities to use materials or processes that would make them inherently safer -- thereby reducing or eliminating the possibility of a terrorist attack causing a catastrophic chemical release. Some facilities have acted. Shortly after 9/11, the Blue Plains wastewater treatment facility in Washington, D.C. replaced chlorine gas -- which, if released in a terrorist attack, could have blanketed the capital in a toxic cloud -- with a safer treatment alternative. Taking this step to ensure public safety costs consumers a mere 25 to 50 cents per year.

What should Congress do?
One sure way to lessen the threat chemical facilities pose to their neighbors is to support Sen. Corzine's legislation -- "The Chemical Security Act" (S. 157). The law will require facilities that produce, use or store significant quantities of toxic chemicals to assess their vulnerabilities to terrorist attack, and reduce or eliminate them. Companies will reduce the threats posed by their operations to the extent feasible and develop plans, both for improving site security and for reducing chemical hazards through safer materials or processes. (This bill passed the Environment and Public Works Committee last year by a vote of 19-0.)

With American lives at stake, there can be no shortcuts on the path to homeland security. We urge Congress to support this common-sense bipartisan safety measure for American communities.

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.