Millions face chemical plant terror risk

By Martin Sieff Aug 31, 2005, 22:47 GMT
WASHINGTON, DC, United States (UPI) — The former counter-terror chief for Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush is warning that most U.S. infrastructure is still almost as vulnerable as it was on Sept. 11, 2001. And he singled out chemical plants as tempting targets for terrorists seeking to create man-made Bhopal-scale disasters in the United States.
Almost four years after the terror attacks on the World Trade Center in new York City and the Pentagon in Washington, DC that took 3,000 lives, America`s vast and sprawling chemical industry remains vulnerable, Richard Clarke, who has been a leading critic of the Bush administration`s terrorism and Iraq policies, told an audience at the New America Foundation Tuesday.
“We have failed to protect chemical plants,” sufficiently from possible terrorist attacks, Clarke said.
He cited Congressional Research Service figures that there were more than 100 plants where a successful attack could affect more than a million people.
There had been some progress in reducing the number of such plants capable of expelling large amounts of deadly chemicals into the atmosphere since September 2001, but not much and not enough, he said.
The number had been reduced from 123 four years ago to 110 today, Clarke said.
“It is still easy for terrorist groups use our infrastructure against us,” he said.
The study was performed at the request of Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., who asked the Congressional Research Service to analyze risk-management plans and maps that plants provide to the Environmental Protection Agency.
The study estimated that half of Utah`s population could be harmed by toxic gas if terrorists attacked a state chemical storage facility
Clarke criticized the administration and the Republican-controlled Congress for not giving priority to pushing through legislation yet.
“Congress has diddled for three years on a Chemical Security Act,” he said. “It still hasn`t acted.”
Clarke said that there had been progress in creating a sweeping new security infrastructure within the United States government, especially the creation and organization of the Department of Homeland Security. But while the department had launched a large number of necessary initiatives to upgrade security on mass transit and industrial infrastructure, almost none of those programs appeared yet to be near completion or fulfillment, and the government and Congress still lacked definitions and metrics by which they could measure progress in implementing them.
“There is not a clear statement out of the Department of Homeland Security and the administration yet about where we will be in a certain year,” he said.
Legislation to mandate major security upgrades at chemical plants has been mired on Capitol Hill, with major chemical corporations and their lobbyists fiercely opposing some measures, which they say gave the government too much say in how chemicals are processed.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-MN, chair of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, has said she hopes to introduce a new bill in the coming session. Jurisdiction over chemical security on Capitol Hill was recently moved to her committee after the issue had been deadlocked for nearly four years in the Senate Environmental Committee chaired by Sen. James M. Inhofe, R-OK. Inhofe is closely linked with the petrochemical industry.
Most of the concern in recent months in the chemical safety debate has focused on the potential dangers posed by so-called toxic-by-inhalation chemicals like chlorine gas. A successful attack on one of the 90-ton chlorine rail cars that ply the line through downtown Washington during a major public even on the Mall could kill tens of thousands of people, according to a study by the U.S. military.
Chlorine was one of the poison gases most-used in World War I. Some 650,000 British, French and German troops were killed or seriously injured by it, usually with incapacitating effects for the rest of their lives.
The Bush administration seems to have broken the three and three-quarter year-long logjam in June when Homeland Security`s infrastructure protection chief Bob Stephan threw the department`s weight behind compulsory, federally imposed chemical security regulation.
“It has become clear the entire voluntary efforts of these companies alone will not address security for the entire sector,” Stephan told Collins` committee.
The administration continues to push for voluntary cooperation and enforcement of safety standards in many security programs with private corporations in such areas as monitoring the millions of cargo containers that enter the United States every week. And it had previously followed the same laissez-faire philosophy on enforcing — or, its critics allege, not enforcing — federal chemical safety standards.
However, Stephan was responding to growing warnings form other government agencies, independent research institutes, unions and public interest groups about the continuing vulnerability of chemical plants across the United States.
Many water and sewer utility companies have abandoned toxic chlorine and switched to safer laundry bleach to keep their facilities free of harmful infections and bacteria. However, this so far has been a voluntary and patchwork response.
And it has not begun to address the broader issues warned about by Clarke.
But the patchy nature of the response has also led to a change of heart in the industry, with many firms realizing that only legislation will level the playing field between them and their less responsible competitors, who at present can cut costs by not investing in security.
Clarke`s fears are not merely hypothetical.
On Dec. 3, 1984, a leak of methyl isocyanate gas at a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India killed 3,800 people and blinded or otherwise maimed scores of thousands more.
The U.S. chemical manufacturing sector generated $91 billion in exports last year. It employs nearly one million people and annually generates sales of $460 billion.
UPI Homeland and National Security Editor Shaun Waterman contributed to this story.
Copyright 2005 by United Press International

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