Newspapers instinctively tend to fight unnecessary secrecy. So it's with some apprehension that we endorse a Senate bill that seeks to beef up security in the nation's chemical plants, including resin-manufacturing operations.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Jon Corzine, D-N.J., obviously must be balanced. When the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee unanimously passed the measure July 25, both Greenpeace and the Arlington, Va.-based American Chemistry Council had words of support. That's like George Armstrong Custer agreeing to sit down for tea and cookies with Sitting Bull. It just doesn't happen.
Security has been a major concern in the United States since Sept. 11, with immediate attention focused on obvious places like airports. Corzine's bill was designed to buttress security at chemical plants.
ACC likes how the bill takes into account the voluntary effort already under way by its member companies. That effort, implemented in June, requires ACC members to assess the vulnerability of their facilities, take steps to address potential problems, and have a third party verify that the steps have been taken.
Greenpeace sees the bill as the first step in an effort to reduce the chances of Bhopal-type disasters. The organization also likes how the bill would encourage companies to use fewer toxic raw materials.
Still, we have some concerns.
First, not all chemical companies are ACC members. The trade group's voluntary plan covers about 90 percent of the nation's chemical production, but not 14,000 other factories that use hazardous materials. How will the others prepare for a potential attack? Under the bill, the Environmental Protection Agency, in consultation with the proposed Department of Homeland Security, would be given a year to identify plants that could do the most potential harm to population centers and national security. Then EPA would have another year to develop regulations to require those plants to conduct vulnerability assessments and prepare a plan to reduce the danger.
Doesn't two years seem way too long for the government to be involved?
It's hard to believe some companies might not do the right thing — use safer chemicals, make design changes to make plants less vulnerable to attack and generally to make security tighter. Still, think of all the U.S. chemical plants built prior to Sept. 11. Every decision on location, layout, process and raw materials was made before this new era of increased vigilance. Given the scope of the effort needed to review all those decisions, industry cooperation is crucial. But it's still reassuring to have some government agency responsible for watching and enforcing the goals of this bill.
Finally, a few words about a provision in the bill that a year ago may have been a deal killer, but in retrospect is not a problem: restrictions on public access to information. Under the bill, the vulnerability assessments and plans developed for EPA would be classified.
That clashes with the “right to know” movement that, until recently, was gaining momentum in the United States. Obviously, terrorists already know about the damage they could inflict by attacking chemical plants. But in the Internet age, making the information available would make it too easy to access — too easy to pick targets that would do the worst possible damage.
In the current environment, security trumps the “right to know.”