Video: Chemical plant security concerns

By Brock N. Meeks Chief Washington correspondent
updated 6/15/2005 8:40:45 PM ET 2005-06-16T00:40:45

Voluntary security guidelines aren’t enough to keep the nation’s chemical plants safe from potential terrorist attack, a Homeland Security official told Congress Wednesday.

The Federal government must craft a regulatory structure and “develop enforceable performance standards,” said Robert Stephan, acting undersecretary for the Department of Homeland Security.  “We’re doing a lot, we need to do more and more authority is clearly needed,” he said. 

Although many of the nation’s largest at-risk chemical plants work closely with Homeland Security officials, providing full access to all areas of their operation, a disturbing number keep the federal government at a distance on security matters.

“We believe that about 20 percent (of those chemical plants we consider to be at greatest risk) aren’t governed by any kind of voluntary security code,” Stephan said.  “I cannot come to the president or report to you, with a straight face, and say I absolutely know what’s going on there,” he told the committee.

Stephan stressed Wednesday that his testimony before the Senate Homeland Security Governmental Affairs Committee wasn’t a new direction for the Bush administration.  Rather, it was to underscore the administration’s willingness to work with Congress to put acceptable legislation together. 

The move was welcome by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who chairs the committee; however she was disappointed with the administration’s inability to provide any specifics.

“While I’d hoped for more details on what specific authority the legislation would entail, the acknowledgment that current laws are inadequate is a positive first step,” Collins said.

The chemical industry operates under a broad code of ethical principles and management systems known as the Responsible Care Security Code. That code was revamped in January 2002 in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Since 9/11, the chemical industry has poured $2 billion into better security measures for chemical plants in the U.S., according to figures supplied by the American Chemistry Council.  “And we should build on that progress,” Stephan said.

There are some 3,400 chemical plants in the U.S. that the Department of Homeland Security considers to be at greatest risk from terrorist attack; about a fifth of all chemical facilities are close to cities, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.  Of all those, 297 sites would put 50,000 or more people at risk if there were a toxic chemical release, DHS says.

Need more input
Although the chemical industry has made “considerable progress in bolstering its aggregate security posture,” more work is needed, Stephan said.

When committee members pressed for details as to what should be in any type of regulatory legislation, Stephan drew a blank.   “We are working on (details) in an accelerated manner,” was all he offered.  However, he did give a broad outline for how the legislation could be structured, cautioning the senators to stay away from a one-size fits all type of regulatory framework.

“What we have to do is implement a regime that is risk based, based upon a common approach, but with a menu of options that allow the operators to pick measures to implement that fit them best,” Stephan said.

The American Chemical Council, which counts the nation’s largest chemical plants among its membership, actually favors federal legislation, according to written testimony by ACC official Martin Durbin that he submitted to the Committee on Homeland Security Committee in the House; that committee also was scheduled to hold a hearing on chemical plant security Wednesday.  

But ACC’s endorsement of federal regulation comes with a caveat:  it must take into account the philosophy of “inherent safety,” Durbin said.  “Basically it means designing a process to avoid creating a hazard in the first place, rather than trying to control the hazard afterward with add-on protective equipment or procedures,” Durbin said.

Durbin warned that legislation creating a rigid set of security standards involves “trading one risk against the potential of another.”  For example, his written testimony notes, many of those advocating the reduction of onsite inventories of dangerous chemicals, such as chlorine, don’t realize that such a move “may increase the number of truck shipments through the plant’s neighborhood.” 

The history of “inherently safer” regulations is fraught with an infamous list of “unintended consequences,” Durbin said.  “Chlorofluorocarbons, underground storage tanks and PCS’s were all originally regarded as inherently safer, from the perspective of fire or explosion,” he said.

Collins said she hoped to have legislation drafted and presented to the committee by September.

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