Poison

By

Next to nuclear facilities, chemical plants pose the greatest danger
in the case of a terrorist attack. The Environmental Protection
Agency (EPA) has identified 123 facilities where an attack could
injure or kill more than one million people and 750 other
facilities where more than 100,000 people would be threatened. A
refinery near Philadelphia, for instance, has 400,000 pounds of
hydrogen fluoride on hand, which, if released into the air, can
cause blindness; kidney, liver, or lung damage; and even death.
Terrorists know this. In the spring of 2001, a pilot landed a
single-engine Cessna at the airport at Copperhill, Tennessee, and
asked a local businessman what type of chemicals were stored at the
nearby Boliden Intertrade chemical plant. After September 11, the
businessman recognized the pilot as Mohammed Atta.Many of these chemical facilities are not well-guarded. In a study
last year of 60 chemical plants in Baltimore, Chicago, Houston, and
Pittsburgh, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review found that an intruder
would have "unfettered access to sensitive control rooms, train
derailing levers, pipelines, wharves, tanker trucks and vats
holding some of the deadliest poisons ever invented." And, at
Senate hearings last July, Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge
admitted, "We know that there have been reports validated about
security deficiencies at dozens and dozens of [chemical
facilities]."

By this logic, the government should be imposing the same strict
anti- terrorist regulations on the chemical industry that it
imposed on the nuclear, water-treatment, and airline industries.
But it's not. In October 2001, New Jersey Senator Jon Corzine
introduced legislation to protect chemical plants, and it seemed
likely to pass. But, with the White House's tacit consent, the
chemical industry convinced pliant Senate Republicans to block new
regulations. It's another instance of the enormous power that
business lobbies wield over Republican politicians--and it mocks
the GOP's claim that national security is its highest priority.

The legislation Corzine introduced was the Chemical Security Act,
designed to protect chemical facilities. The bill, according to an
accompanying fact sheet, would have required the EPA and the new
Department of Homeland Security to "establish minimum requirements
for the improvement of security and the reduction of potential
hazards at chemical plants and other industrial facilities that
store large quantities of hazardous materials." Chemical plants
would be required to meet these standards either through new
technology or through security measures.

When some Republicans on the Environment and Public Works Committee
objected, Corzine negotiated changes to win their support. For
instance, he limited the plants that would fall under the new
legislation to those the EPA already lists under its Risk
Management Program, which monitors large chemical facilities for
industrial accidents. To appease the industry critics who complained
that chemical companies would have no incentive to initiate new
safety procedures until the EPA completed its standards, Corzine
added a provision granting exemptions to firms that took immediate
steps. And he met Republican and industry objections that the bill
would make companies more vulnerable to attack by forcing them to
publicize their risk assessments: His revised bill adopted the
secrecy provisions of the bioterrorism bill that Congress passed,
even exempting risk assessments from Freedom of Information Act
requests. On July 25, the committee passed the bill 19 to zero.
Full Senate passage seemed assured.

But the chemical industry fought back vigorously, mounting daily
assaults on the Republican members of the committee throughout
August. The American Chemistry Council, the principal lobby for the
chemical industry, created a formidable coalition of industries
that included those directly affected, such as oil and
petrochemicals, and the larger business lobbies, such as the U.S.
Chamber of Commerce and Grover Norquist's network of activist
organizations. The legislation focused specifically on chemical
facilities near large population centers, but the lobby recruited
the American Farm Bureau on the grounds that farmers, who use
ammonia-laced fertilizer, would be subject to new regulations. The
lobby sounded the usual anti-regulatory alarms. But, in their ads
and letters, they also attacked the bill for failing to deal with
exactly those issues that Corzine had addressed during
negotiations, charging, for instance, that companies would be
forced to provide information that could be used "by terrorists and
criminals."

Despite these deceptions, the lobby had reason to believe that
committee members would listen: In last year's election, four
Republican members of the committee--James Inhofe of Oklahoma,
Robert Smith of New Hampshire, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, and
George Voinovich of Ohio--topped the industry's recipient list for
incumbents; in the 1998 cycle, Voinovich and fellow committee
member Missouri Senator Christopher "Kit" Bond had topped the list.
And so, on September 10, 2002, seven of the nine Republicans on the
committee-- all of whom had voted for the legislation in
committee--wrote a letter to their colleagues denouncing Corzine's
bill. Led by Bond and Inhofe and mimicking the chemical industry's
charges, they claimed the legislation "severely misses the mark,"
criticizing it for including features Corzine had cut out in his
effort to satisfy them. Corzine offered to modify the bill even
further, but the Republicans didn't want to change the bill; they
wanted to kill it. Aided by the Senate's Byzantine parliamentary
rules, they succeeded, blocking a vote on it as an amendment to the
Homeland Security Act. The National Petrochemical and Refiners
Association crowed on its website last fall, "Due to strong
lobbying efforts by the chemical, petroleum and other industries,
it appears that the Chemical Security Act of 2002 (the Corzine
bill) has been de-railed for the current Congress."

Within the Bush administration, Ridge and EPA Administrator Christie
Todd Whitman made no secret of their support for new anti-terrorist
regulations for the chemical industry. Whitman even claimed last
summer that she could adopt regulations under the existing
authority of the Clean Air Act without congressional legislation,
but the Justice and Labor Departments both protested the expansion
of the EPA's authority, and the White House sided with them. In
October, Ridge and Whitman, in response to a Washington Post article
describing administration inaction, wrote a letter to the editor
supporting regulation. "We applaud voluntary efforts some in the
industry have undertaken, but ... [v]oluntary efforts alone are not
sufficient to provide the level of assurance Americans deserve."
Yet, with the White House refusing to buck the industry and its
Senate allies, their words were to no avail.

Corzine is not giving up, and he has reintroduced his chemical
security bill. But he is now part of the Senate minority and cannot
hope to get his legislation considered without substantial
Republican support. And the chairmanship of the Environment and
Public Works Committee has shifted since the elections, from
Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords to none other than James Inhofe.
Inhofe says a new bill on chemical security is a high priority in
his committee, and one of his committee staffers told me, "We are
definitely going to move quickly." But, when I asked the staffer
whether the bill would include required standards, he admitted that
he had no idea. Perhaps Inhofe and his staff are waiting for the
American Chemistry Council's draft.

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