- The Washington Times - Monday, May 12, 2003

Ever since September 11, improving security at chemical faculties has been a major concern to legislators, and for good reason. Terrorists could try to steal substances stored there, or, even worse, cause the release of a toxic cloud. However, there’s a significant difference between security and safety. No chemical plant can ever be called completely safe, since accidents and spills happen will in even OSHA-certified and ergonomically idealized facilities. Yet, chemical plants can and should be adequately secured from likely terrorist threats.

The latter must be the focus of legislative action. Last week, Sens. Zell Miller and James Inhofe introduced a bill (S. 994) to strengthen security at chemical facilities. With its focus on security, it seems a far wiser choice than an alternative bill offered by Sen. Jon Corzine.

Under the Inhofe bill, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) would be given the authority to conduct vulnerability assessments at chemical plants, to require plants to make security changes where necessary and to penalize those which don’t comply. By contrast, DHS authorities would work with regulators from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to conduct vulnerability assessments and safety certifications under the most recent version of Mr. Corzine’s bill. Even worse, his legislation calls for chemical plants to use “inherently safer technology,” a phrase which opponents rightly fear could be used by regulators to arbitrarily reduce — or even phase out — the use of valuable chemicals.

The environmental group Greenpeace has endorsed the Corzine bill. That should give pause to policy-makers, especially since Greenpeace’s Web site argues: “Federal laws must be strengthened to require the chemical industry to consider safer alternatives and safer methods to store and use chemicals while converting to new technologies.”

However, the principle point of this legislation should be to secure chemical facilities from terrorist attacks, not to make products more palatable to environmentalists or EPA regulators. Besides, there are not that many viable alternatives to many of the chemicals in use. Chlorine, for instance, which is used in the manufacturing of about 85 percent of the pharmaceuticals made today, has only four other counterparts with similar properties in its group on the periodic table.

It should also be remembered that few (if any) chemicals can be considered inherently safe. The oxygen we breathe each minute causes cell damage in its free radical form. Nitrogen, which makes up nearly 80 percent of the atmosphere, can cause narcosis at high concentrations in the blood. Nitrogen narcosis can even lead to the death of a diver swimming in the normally innocuous chemical compound of water.

Greenpeace and others calling for the adoption of Mr. Corzine’s bill argue that there are more than 120 sites in the nation where, in a worst-case scenario, more than 1 million people could be killed or injured in a catastrophic event. However, it must be remembered that those worst-case scenario estimates come from Risk Management Plans (RMP), which the EPA requires from chemical facilities for disaster-planning purposes for local authorities. RMPs should perhaps better be thought of as a Murphy’s Law Plans (MLPs), since they assume that, in the event of a release, absolutely everything goes wrong. Under MLPs, the wind blows killing plumes of perfectly spreading gas in every direction at the same time. Everyone in that 360-degree radius is killed or injured, because the plans assume that no one can get out of the way — their cars have all broken down and they’ve all sprained their ankles at exactly the same time.

This should be put in a bit of context — albeit terrible. The worst chemical accident of all time killed about 3,000 individuals in Bhopal, India, in 1984, which at the time had about 90,000 residents. In one of the few chemical attacks by terrorists, the sarin release by the Aum Shinrikyo cult on a crowded Tokyo subway in 1995 killed 12 persons and injured about 4,000. Approximately 91,000 soldiers were killed by the chemical weapons routinely used in World War I.

While there’s no gainsaying the catastrophe that a terrorist attack on a chemical facility could cause, it must be put in the proper context. Making chemical plants use “safer” chemicals is not the same as making them more secure from terrorists.

The two chemical safety bills are expected to be voted on by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee soon. The committee, and the Senate, should pass Mr. Inhofe’s bill instead of Mr. Corzine’s.

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