Homeland Security

Protect America from chemical plant dangers

In 2006, Sen. Barack Obama offered the clearest statement of the dangers posed by America’s hazardous chemical facilities. “Basically,” he said, “these plants are stationary weapons of mass destruction spread all across the country.” In that light, a new safety rule, proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency under President Obama, evokes a notorious Cold War prescription for a nuclear attack: Duck and Cover. 

Emergency preparedness in the event of a chemical disaster, the proposed rule’s focus, is critically important for our national security. But more essential is prevention of a chemical disaster in the first place. In this regard, the rule falls well short.

{mosads}As former holders of U.S. national security positions, we believe the EPA can and should require the use of safer chemicals and processes where feasible. 

For decades, our country has failed to squarely address the security problem that chemical facilities present. It is a glaring danger that puts millions of our citizens at risk.

In August 2013, President Obama took an important first step with an Executive Order requiring a government review of safety procedures at chemical plants.

The President acted, in part, because of the April 2013 ammonium nitrate explosion in West, Texas, which killed 15 people and injured 160 more. This tragedy, which investigators recently determined was deliberate sabotage, highlighted much of the chemical industry’s failure to minimize and safely store toxic materials, and our government’s failure to create effective rules to protect against such incidents.

Since the West, Texas, disaster, there have been more than 430 chemical incidents and 82 deaths. None of us should ignore the possibility of more accidents, or chemical incidents resulting from natural disasters, with even more violent consequences. Many of us recall the 1984 pesticide plant disaster at Bhopal, India, which caused 20,000 deaths. 

As the Texas case suggests, terrorists could trigger a chemical plant attack, with consequences like Bhopal, Sept. 11, or even worse. In 2003, the government’sNational Infrastructure Protection Center warned that chemical plants could be terrorist targets. Security experts say determined attackers could thwart conventional plant security. The potential for cyber-attacks makes the challenge even more serious.

The EPA has identified 466 chemical facilities in the U.S. that each put 100,000 or more people at risk of a poison gas disaster. In 2005, the Homeland Security Council projectedthat a major attack would kill some 17,500 people and injure tens of thousands more.

This is a national security issue, and the Administration must treat it like one, with the kind of urgency we give to weapons of mass destruction overseas.

In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, EPA administrator Christine Todd Whitman, the former governor of New Jersey, drafted rules requiring safer technology conversions, where feasible, at high-risk plants. But the plan was blocked by the Bush White House after lobbying by the chemical industry. 

The EPA has the authority to issue rules to require chemical plants to move to inherently safer technologies. Whitman and former Obama EPA administrator Lisa Jackson have each now called for the Obama EPA to move ahead with such an approach. The U.S. Chemical Safety Board, which investigates hazardous materials incidents, also is urging stronger rules for safer materials.

Since 2001, hundreds of chemical facilities have switched to safer processes. Clorox Company, for example, has converted all of its U.S. facilities. The result is reliable protection for employees and communities against catastrophic disasters at reasonable cost. 

We don’t see how President Obama, who once offered such a clear perspective on this danger, would want to read that his EPA’s final rule was exposed as far too weak by groups representing low-income communities living near these hazardous plants, by unions representing chemical plant workers, by experts like Governor Whitman, and others.

There surely would be scrutiny of a weak EPA rule if one day we did have a major chemical catastrophe. If the Bhopal plant, which was owned by a U.S. company, Union Carbide, had been located in the U.S. and 20,000 people had died here, we would have fixed this problem long ago.

We understand that the technical and organizational challenges of requiring companies to move to safer technologies are complex. But given the magnitude of chemical facility dangers, the Obama Administration should not wait any longer to protect the American people.

Lieutenant General Russel L Honoré, US Army (Ret) is the former commander of Joint Task Force Katrina. Major General Randy Manner, US Army (Ret), is a former acting Director of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. David Halperin, a lawyer, is a former staff member of the National Security Council & Senate Intelligence Committee. 




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