(May 12, 2003) — Legislators are squabbling over a very important issue: how to ensure that chemical plants are secure.
It's been 20 months since the events of Sept. 11, 2001. Even in the first hours after the attacks, the government warned Americans that chemical plants were potential terror targets. According to a General Accounting Office report, 123 plants are located very close to heavily populated cities, where an attack could kill thousands of people. Yet the issue remains unsettled.
Given all the security-related actions the government has managed to accomplish in a relatively short period of time, it's both amazing and disappointing that the chemical plant security issue just now is moving to the legislative front burner.
The chemical industry, as you might expect, believes its member companies are in the best position to handle plant security. Their first reaction to the issue was that they did not need or want more government oversight. They preferred to come up with their own voluntary security guidelines.
Now Congress is considering two strategies for bringing more federal scrutiny to plant safety.
On the Republican side, the Bush administration and Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., have drafted legislation that would levy heavy fines on plants that fail to follow security plans developed by chemical companies and reviewed by the Department of Homeland Security.
But some Democrats don't believe that strategy goes far enough. Sen. Jon Corzine, D-N.J., has taken a leading role in the debate. He actually had a bill that won unanimous support in committee last year, but was killed before it reached a vote on the floor. The problem was a controversial provision that called on companies to explore the use of less toxic chemicals.
The chemical industry doesn't want the government telling it what chemicals it can or cannot use. It's an interesting debate. The farther removed from the events of Sept. 11, the more time it seems that Congress might feel it can take mulling the issue.
Still, this is a concern that needs to be resolved soon. If an attack were to occur now, and the public discovered that legislation had been delayed by the likes of this question, the damage to the industry's reputation would be devastating.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., recently talked about plant safety when he was keynote speaker at the Great Kanawha Valley Chemical Heritage Symposium in Charleston, W.Va. He told the audience that industry's days of operating under voluntary security guidelines are coming to a close.
Chemical plant security “is a matter of people living or dying,” Rockefeller said. “I don't think any amount of self-regulation is going to make people who live near chemical plants feel as secure as they should.” He added that Congress is “dead serious about security — not that we've done much yet.”
Chemical companies obviously want to protect their plants, and the public, against terror attacks. And by now it's become clear that they're going to see some form of government oversight. So the debate will be over the fine points.
It's clearly in the best interest of the chemical industry to get the wheels moving. If Corzine's language on exploring safer technologies and less-toxic chemicals is a sticking point, let's find a compromise quickly and debate that secondary issue later.