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Chemical Industry Fights Anti-Terrorism Measures

As terrorism worries grow, will Congress finally force chemical plants to consider security upgrades? Don’t bet on it.
August 17, 2006

The chemical industry has a history of disasters. Among the worst, in 1947 a fertilizer tanker ship exploded in Texas City, TX, killing nearly 600 people and injuring 3,500. In 1984, a cloud of methyl isocyanate from a Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, killed 4,000 people and injured as many as half a million. So it’s no wonder that anti-terrorism experts voice concerns about the vulnerability of the nation’s chemical plants.

The 1947 explosion of a fertilizer tanker ship in Texas City, TX, killed nearly 600 people. Chemical safety experts worry that hundreds of U.S. chemical plants could be vulnerable to similar destruction if attacked by terrorists. (Credit: Bettman/CORBIS)

Despite the warnings, the chemical industry, its supporters in Congress, and top officials in the Bush Administration have fought hard against laws to tighten security. But this September, when Congress returns to Washington, it may finally pass legislation to mandate that chemical plants – and the industry’s customers that store large quantities of hazardous chemicals – reduce the inherent risk of catastrophes.

The sticking point will be whether to force facilities that pose the greatest risk to use so-called “inherently safer technology” – a catchall for alternative processes or process conditions enabling a plant to produce or store less of the most hazardous chemicals.

Chemical producers have fought off proposals to mandate such behavior for more than two decades, claiming that the government is ill-equipped to regulate chemical processes. But in the wake of continuing terrorist threats, many in Congress, as well as among emergency responders, are losing their patience for the industry’s foot-dragging.

“We’re talking about a human being with intent to commit mass murder,” says Carolyn Merritt, chair of the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, an independent federal agency that investigates chemical accidents. (The agency is comparable to the National Transportation Safety Board, which probes airline, bus, and train crashes.)

The threat is staggering. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 123 chemical facilities in the United States are located where a catastrophic release from them could injure or kill more than one million people each. Using a slightly different model, the Department of Homeland Security projects that 272 chemical facilities threaten at least 50,000 people each. “It is a real threat, and we as a country would be wise to take precautions,” says Merritt.

Since September 11, 2001, the U.S. chemical industry claims it’s invested $3 billion in security upgrades. But news reports of journalists walking into plants unimpeded have raised doubts about the industry’s ability to fend off terrorists. And so have a series of recent reports from federal agencies. The latest, the “Terrorism and the Chemical Infrastructure” study, released by the National Academy of Sciences this summer, put inherently safer technology at the top of its list of options for protecting communities. “The most desirable solution to preventing chemical releases is to reduce or eliminate the hazard where possible, not to control it,” the report concludes.

Examples of technological solutions include modifying a chemical process to operate at lower temperatures and pressures, replacing hazardous substances with safer substitutes (such as using a liquid ammonia reagent instead of gaseous ammonia), and using “mini-reactors” that produce hazardous ingredients on an as-needed basis, eliminating transportation and bulk storage. Unfortunately, the academy’s study panel concluded, the implementation of such safety measures is “quite limited” – because chemical producers frequently lack an economic incentive to make the changes.

Indeed, although the safety changes might seem like a no-brainer from a safety standpoint, the industry has been reluctant to embrace them, leading to calls for legislative action. “While I would like to think that all companies would inherently do the right thing to eliminate hazards, unfortunately I know that’s not going to happen,” says Merritt.

Last month, in a surprise move, the House Committee on Homeland Security approved a chemical terrorism bill that would require those facilities posing the highest risk to neighboring communities to report to the Department of Homeland Security on their potential for using inherently safer technologies. A plant could then be ordered to implement those measures if the agency determined them to be technically feasible and cost effective.

The American Chemistry Council, a Washington-based trade organization, calls the House bill a mistake. In a statement issued last month, after the House committee voted, the council’s CEO, Jack Gerard, blasted the committee for “adopting language that puts government in a position of mandating changes to our processes and products.”

But environmentalists say the industry’s unwillingness to commit to using safer technology is irresponsible and motivated more by politics than by concern for national security. “They have viewed it as something laissez-faire, something that only they would determine in their own time and place,” says Greenpeace’s toxics campaign legislative director, Rick Hind. “In our view that’s like saying we have the cure to cancer, but we’ll only use it when we feel like it.”

The chemical industry’s supporters in Congress could seek to keep the “inherently safer technology” provisions out of the final bill – especially since they don’t appear in the Senate’s version of the chemical safety legislation. However, activists hope tight electoral races in the fall, combined with continued worries over terrorism, will convince Congressional leaders to support the House committee’s stronger legislation.

Meanwhile, some states have had enough with the federal slow pace and have taken their own actions. Most notably, New Jersey recently introduced requirements for inherently safer technology. Among the state’s plants is the Kuehne Chemical alkali and chlorine plant in South Kearny, which has 12 million people within its 16-mile, worst-case accident “kill zone.” 

Even if Congress does pass legislation requiring chemical plants to adopt safer practices, however, the industry still may avoid implementing the changes. The proposed House version of the bill gives the Department of Homeland Security the discretion to decide what constitutes a high-risk facility and what measures those facilities need to take. And DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff is an avowed opponent of federally mandated inherently safer technology. In a speech to a chemical industry conference this spring, Chertoff suggested that such proposals would, at best, result in government “micromanaging” the industry and, at worst, be a sort of environmental Trojan horse, whereby DHS would be charged with “achieving environmental ends that are unrelated to security.”

As a result, chemical safety advocates fear that they may win in the halls of Congress, yet still lose the battle to protect U.S. cities and towns lying downwind from the nation’s chemical plants. “We don’t have a lot of faith that [federal law] is going to be the turnaround it could be,” says Greenpeace’s Hind.

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