As the chances of a terrorist attack on American soil increase, Congress and the Bush administration should feel some urgency to patch a gaping hole in homeland defense. The nation's 15,000 chemical plants pose a substantial risk, and 110 of the largest facilities would threaten a million people or more if a terrorist attack spread the chemicals. Yet the chemical industry has spent millions of dollars on campaign contributions and public relations to fight off federal oversight of its security.
If the potential for harm weren't so great, this could be passed off as just another example of corporate influence over Washington decisionmaking. After Sept. 11, however, protection of the American public should rise above politics-as-usual.
Particularly vulnerable are large stores of common, but potentially deadly, chemicals such as chlorine and sulfur dioxide near densely populated areas. The online magazine Salon focused on one such plant -- Kuehne Chemical just 9 miles from New York's Times Square. The company itself admitted that the failure of just one railroad car filled with chlorine could threaten everyone in a 14-mile radius. A well-planned attack on the plant would put 12-million lives at risk, Salon calculated.
Voluntary security measures at Kuehne and other chemical plants are not impressive. Reporters have found unlocked gates and unguarded fences. A bill introduced by Sen. Jon Corzine, D-N.J., called the Chemical Security Act, would impose federal safety standards on those plants. It would require them to assess their vulnerabilities, improve security and consider switching to safer chemicals.
Such measures would cost more, of course, and that's the main reason the industry objected. Although Corzine's bill drew initial bipartisan support last year, the chemical industry went to work to defeat it with campaign contributions. Soon, leaders of both parties and the Bush administration withdrew their backing for the bill.
Now, the threat is even greater. The General Accounting Office recently issued a report on chemical plant security. "The federal government has not comprehensively assessed the chemical industry's vulnerabilities to terrorist attacks," the GAO concluded. And voluntary efforts "are not sufficient to assure the public of (the chemical) industry's preparedness."
That should be warning enough. Even the chemical industry has indicated recently that it might accept federal oversight of plant safety. Why are Congress and the Bush administration waiting to secure the most vulnerable chemical plants?