Time for Chemical Plant Security

Editorial

New York Times

December 27, 2005

It is hard to believe, but more than four years after the Sept. 11 = attacks,=20 Congress has still not acted to make chemical plants, one of the = nation's=20 greatest terrorist vulnerabilities, safer. Last week, Senators Susan = Collins, a=20 Maine Republican, and Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat, unveiled = a=20 bipartisan chemical plant security bill. We hope that parts of the bill = will be=20 improved as it works its way through Congress, though even in its = current form=20 the bill would be a significant step.

If terrorists attacked a chemical plant, the death toll could be = enormous. A=20 single breached chlorine tank could, according to the Department of = Homeland=20 Security, lead to 17,500 deaths, 10,000 severe injuries and 100,000=20 hospitalizations. Many chemical plants have shockingly little security = to defend=20 against such attacks.

After 9/11, there were immediate calls for the government to impose = new=20 security requirements on these plants. But the chemical industry, which=20 contributes heavily to political campaigns, has used its influence in = Washington=20 to block these efforts. Senator Collins, the chairwoman of the Committee = on=20 Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, has held hearings on = chemical plant=20 security, and has now come up with this bill with both Republican and = Democratic=20 sponsors.

The bill requires chemical plants to conduct vulnerability = assessments and=20 develop security and emergency response plans. The Department of = Homeland=20 Security would be required to develop performance standards for chemical = plant=20 security. In extreme cases, plants that do not meet the standards could = be shut=20 down.

Until recently, it appeared that the bill might include pre-emption = language,=20 which would block states from coming up with their own chemical security = rules.=20 That would have made the bill worse than no bill at all. New Jersey has = just=20 imposed its own chemical plant security rules, and other states may = follow.=20 These states should be free to protect their citizens more vigorously = than the=20 federal government does, if they choose. To Senator Collins's and = Senator=20 Lieberman's credit, the bill now expressly declares that it does not = prevent=20 states from doing more.

The bill's biggest weakness is that it does not address the issue of=20 alternative chemicals. In many cases, chemical plants in highly = populated areas=20 are using dangerous chemicals when there are safer, cost-effective = substitutes.=20 A strong bill would require chemical companies to investigate = alternatives, and=20 to use them when the cost is not prohibitive. Senator Lieberman has said = that he=20 hopes to strengthen the bill's approach to alternative chemicals, which = would be=20 an important improvement.

The burden now falls on the House of Representatives to pass a bill = that is=20 at least as tough, and that does not pre-empt the states' authority in = this=20 area. A leading antiterrorism expert has described the nation's chemical = plants=20 as "15,000 weapons of mass destruction littered around the United = States." The=20 American people have waited long enough to be protected from these = homegrown=20 W.M.D.'s.