Chemical plant security: safer technology can reduce risks

Refining fuel and manufacturing chemicals are risky businesses. They involve hazardous materials and high temperatures. An accident could produce a toxic cloud that endangers an entire neighborhood, as in the tragedy in Bhopal, India, in 1984.
That’s why government requires emergency preparedness plans based on “worst-case” scenarios.
Since 9/11, the threat of terrorism also looms.
So why hasn’t Congress acted to secure these plants, as it did with airports and nuclear plants? Repeated government and media reports have found security lacking at chemical plants. Even industry groups now admit that their voluntary measures aren’t comprehensive.
New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine championed the issue as senator, but it went nowhere. It found new momentum last summer with hearings guided by Sens. Susan Collins (R., Maine) and Joseph Lieberman (D., Conn.), but then stalled again. Collins’ bill may come up again later this month.
The debate broke down, in part, over provisions for “inherently safer technology.” Should the government require chemical plants and refineries to substitute safer technology if it’s at all economically feasible?
Environmentalists and community activists say: Of course. But industry representatives worry that regulators lack technical expertise to make that decision and that their judgments will interfere with proprietary issues. They rightly fear trading one risk for another, such as storing dangerous chemicals on-site rather than transporting them long distances.
The answer lies in compromise, as in New Jersey’s security standards, which require the 43 highest-risk plants to at least consider alternative technology and report it to the state Department of Environmental Protection. Most plants regularly review such options anyway.
In Philadelphia, Sunoco Inc. has set a good example by voluntarily committing to adopt a safer refining process by 2008 to protect its South Philadelphia neighbors. It will cost $61 million. Company officials said the new process, long sought by community residents and environmentalists, would reduce the potential drift of a “worst-case” toxic cloud from 25 miles to six.
Safer technology is one way to reduce the risk of both accidents and terrorist acts. It should be part of any security discussion.

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