Secretary of Homeland Insecurity

Editorial

New York Times

March 24, 2006

Sometimes it's hard to understand just how Michael Chertoff understands his title, secretary of homeland security. Take this week, when Mr. Chertoff appeared before executives of the chemical industry, whose plants remain one of the nation's greatest vulnerabilities more than four years after 9/11. Mr. Chertoff did not chastise the industry for failing to protect chemical plants adequately. He proposed weak federal safety standards. He did not even fully embrace a recently introduced bipartisan Senate bill that would create meaningful standards.

Instead, Mr. Chertoff seemed perfectly content to defer on key security matters to an industry that contributes heavily to Republican campaigns but has proved to be dangerously unwilling to take public safety seriously.

A terrorist attack on a chlorine plant could put hundreds of thousands of lives at risk. Yet, incredibly, the federal government has failed to enact reasonable safety standards for chemical plants. Despite all of the nice things the administration has been saying about the industry lately, it has not taken care of the problem on its own. Many plants lack perimeter fencing, lights and security guards. Too often, they use extremely dangerous chemicals close to high-density populations, when safer substances could be substituted.

It should be obvious to anyone concerned about public safety that the nation needs strong, mandatory government rules to reduce these dangers. Yet in his speech, Mr. Chertoff favored leaving crucial security decisions up to the chemical companies — a formula that puts too much weight on not inconveniencing industry, and too little on protecting the public.

Mr. Chertoff said requiring the industry to use safer chemicals would be "mission creep" — even though that would be precisely the kind of precautionary step that should be a core part of his department's mission. Mr. Chertoff also spoke approvingly of "pre-emption," the notion that if federal chemical plant safety rules are adopted, they should be written in a way that will invalidate tougher rules adopted at the state level. Pre-emption is high on the industry's wish list, but it is not in the public interest.

Senators Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, and Joseph Lieberman, Democrat of Connecticut, have come up with a bill that would direct the Homeland Security Department to develop mandatory safety standards for chemical plants. If the bill becomes law, the plants that do not comply with the government's rules could be shut down. The Collins-Lieberman bill is not perfect, but it would be an important start. It is disheartening that Mr. Chertoff is not fully endorsing the measure and pushing Congress to pass it.

Mr. Chertoff has been heavily criticized for his performance during Hurricane Katrina. We hoped that reaction would at least prompt the department to be more aggressive about eliminating obvious domestic security threats. He should be speaking to the American people about his support for strong chemical plant security rules, not speaking to the chemical industry about his support for weak ones.