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Serial hijackings leave millions at risk of a chemical disaster

The threat isn’t hypothetical. The Washington Post reported that the Lashkar terrorist organization that committed the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, India, asked a U.S. ally to “conduct surveillance of an unnamed chemical plant in Maryland.”

Unlike fence line security, safer processes can prevent disasters by turning plants into non-targets, reducing their liability and regulatory obligations, and even saving money.  While hundreds of plants have switched to safer processes, most of the highest risk plants have not. 

Within weeks of the 9/11 attacks, the first legislation (S.1602) was introduced in the Senate and would have conditionally required the use of safer processes at high risk plants. Even the Bush EPA drafted rules to prevent chemical disasters through the use of safer processes. In July 2002 the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee unanimously adopted a compromise of S.1602. But by autumn the legislation was dead and the regulations quashed. 

In 2006, when Republicans feared losing control of the Congress, the 2001 legislation was revived. Senator Susan Collins’ (R-Maine) bill (S. 2145) even included safer processes as a “security measure.” Collins then led the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee (HSGAC) in adopting a bill that barred DHS from requiring any security measure, including safer processes.  

In July Senator Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) offered an amendment to the DHS appropriations bill to establish interim security standards which the Senate unanimously approved. Soon after, King’s Homeland Security Committee adopted a bipartisan bill (H.R. 5695) that conditionally required safer processes. Subcommittee chair Representative Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) told AP, “In an election year…and you’re coming up on the fifth anniversary of 9/11, members both in the House and Senate are going to start looking at what they can show in way of accomplishment in the area of security.”

By the fall of 2006 the Republican led Appropriations Committee created the current law that perverted the Byrd amendment so as to prohibit DHS from requiring any security measure, including safer processes. The committee also added regulatory exemptions for most refineries, all water treatment plants, and others. 

Disaster prevention gained momentum in 2009 after the DHS and EPA urged Congress to conditionally require safer processes, where feasible, and to close security gaps at refineries, water treatment and other facilities. November 6, 2009 the House did exactly that in adopting H.R. 2868.

But after supporting safer processes in 2006, Republicans opposed it in 2009. Even with broad union support, King claimed it “will cost jobs.” But an analysis by Management Information Services, Inc. estimated that H.R. 2868 would create 8,000 jobs and the sectors that would benefit most were the chemical industry and publicly-owned water treatment plants. 

The Society of Chemical Manufacturers and Affiliates further claimed that H.R. 2868, “would most likely compromise the quality of antibiotics that fight against threats such as the swine flu.”  — Antibiotics are not useful against a flu virus. 

Although Senator Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) chairs the HSGAC and supports safer processes as “the only fool proof” way to avert disasters, in 2010 Collins led his Committee to support the flawed current law. Unfortunately she plans to offer an identical bill (S.473) in Committee on June 29th.

As we prepare to honor the 10th anniversary of 9/11, we should first ask whom does this legislation protect? Does it protect chemical workers, firefighters, other first responders, low income communities and communities of color who often live closest to high risk plants? 

Rick Hind is the legislative director of Greenpeace which is one of more than 100 organizations in a blue-green coalition of national and local public health, labor, environmental justice and public interest groups that recognize the common sense need for disaster prevention in any chemical security program. For more info.:

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