Plant Security Caught in Election Politics

Sept. 1, 2006
After a hectic day at work, one sometimes wonders how much was truly accomplished.

After a hectic day at work, one sometimes wonders how much was truly accomplished. It is easier to look busy than get things done. And minutiae can often sidetrack great deeds. That analogy applies to my occasional glances at C-SPAN and Congressional debate on the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Act of 2006 (S. 2145).

“Basically these plants are stationary weapons of mass destruction spread across the country. Security is light, facilities are easily entered, and their contents are deadly. Now, five years after 9/11, the federal government has done virtually nothing to secure these chemical plants,” commented Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) on the bill reintroduced last December by Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME). This bill would replace voluntary measures adopted after the 2001 terrorist attacks. While haggling over tougher rules has been contentious, all generally agree those measures are insufficient.

In the thick of the debate in September, The New York Times pointed out a Homeland Security Department survey “found 272 chemical plants nationwide at which an attack or accident could affect at least 50,000 people and 3,400 more plants at which over 1,000 people were at risk.” Another GAO report identified 15,000 U.S. industrial facilities that produce, use or store toxic chemicals posing a threat to human health and the environment.

Hopes of getting a bill passed before the mid-term break and fall elections were complicated by provisions introduced by Sen. George Voinovich (R-OH) that endorse laxer standards proposed by the chemical industry. They authorize the Homeland Security secretary to establish mandatory measures, but apply only to facilities with the highest risk and leave him unable to require specific security measures or close plants out of compliance.

Viewed as too friendly to the industry, this drew objections from Collins, who chairs the Senate Committee on Homeland Security & Government Affairs overseeing the legislation, Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) and Sen. Judd Gregg (R-NH). While some worry the bill is being watered down, others - such as a spokesman for the American Chemical Society - claimed environmentalists were trying to “ban certain chemicals under the guise of security,” the NYTimes reported. ACS and two other chemical industry associations require members to do vulnerability assessments.

In other industry action, Dow Chemical formed an 11-member Independent Advisory Panel on Chemical Security in June chaired by former 9/11 Commission vice chairman Lee Hamilton. “We have taken aggressive steps to improve our security, not only in the United States, but everywhere in the world where we operate,” said Dow vice president of manufacturing Gary Veurink. “Forming this advisory panel is a next step in our efforts to help drive security improvements across our industry.”

A letter sent to the Senate committee in July also sought to have drinking water and wastewater utility security removed from purview under the legislation. Among signatories: AMWA, AWWA, APWA, NWRA, ACWA, WEF and NACWA. They argue their members are public services that already have to comply with EPA rules, are accountable to the public through elected representatives and government officials and, thus, should be exempt as are federal government facilities of the DoD and DoE. Besides, most of their facilities have already done vulnerability assessments and, while more could be done, taken measures to address problems.

The bottom line is these are issues that should have been worked out in the last five years and ramming legislation through at the last minute without having done the advance work does a disservice to the public. Many of the proposals to make chemical plants more secure are just common sense. Five years after 9/11, it makes no sense not to have taken action in this crucial area. It’s not enough to look busy. It’s time get something done.

Carlos David Mogollón,
Managing Editor

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