Chemical plants need security, not bureaucracy

The risk of catastrophe resulting from a terrorist attack on a chemical plant is too great to chance leaving chemical plant security to the chemical plants themselves, says a new Government Accountability Office report, and of course, the recent rash of terrorist attacks against chemical plants in the U.S. seems to bear out this finding.

Wait a minute. What terrorist attacks?

Oh yes, there haven’t been any! But, prepare to cower in fear, because the Department of Homeland Security has identified 3,400 chemical facilities across the U.S. that, if they were attacked, “could pose the greatest hazard to human life and health,” the report (PDF) says.

“The extent to which companies are addressing security is unclear,” the report says of voluntary private sector efforts to address chemical plant security. “While voluntary efforts are under way, industry officials said that they face challenges in preparing facilities against terrorism, including high costs and limited guidance on how much security is adequate.”

So, according to GAO, not only does the chemical industry want guidance from DHS, the industry apparently doesn’t feel capable of taking on the task of securing its own plants, and some are actually wanting Congress to step in and pass laws, so they’ll be forced to do what they don’t feel they can do on their own.

GAO suggests that Congress consider legislation giving DHS the mantle to require industry to address security at its facilities. “We agree with GAO that DHS should have the authority over security of the nation’s critical infrastructure, including the chemical sector,” says Chris VandenHeuvel, American Chemistry Council spokesman.

VandenHeuvel says ACC supports rapid passage of “tough legislation that focuses solely on security, not on issues that divert attention from antiterrorism, such as unhelpful provisions that would let government bureaucrats interfere with company production processes.”

He is alluding to inherently safer technologies (IST) that GAO says can potentially “lessen the consequences of a terrorist attack by reducing the chemical risks present at facilities.” GAO suggests that DHS and EPA study IST’s security benefits. But Nicholas A. Ashford, professor of technology policy at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, points out that 12 years ago EPA “sponsored research at MIT on the advantages of using IST, which it unfortunately ignored.”

Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), chairman of the Environment & Public Works Committee, however, released a statement calling IST “a concept that environmental special interests have been promoting. It is not a solution for improving security, and DHS opposes its use as such.” — Chemical & Engineering News

That’s right. He is saying Congress needs to get tough on chemical plants, because they obviously can’t secure their own facilities. But according to the GAO report, “ACC requires, as a condition of membership, that companies conduct vulnerability assessments, develop and implement plans to mitigate vulnerabilities, and have a third party verify that the security enhancements identified in the plans were implemented.”

It sounds like they’re already on the ball. So why do we need more legislation to fix a non-existent problem? Any such legislation would just create additional bureaucracy and create additional pointless requirements on chemical plants which will drive up their costs beyond what they can already afford, thus raising your costs for just about everything you buy every day.

In fact, voluntary programs, such as Responsible Care, ChemStewards, and the Responsible Distribution Process, already exist for assuring safety, security and environmental controls at chemical facilities, and according to that same GAO report, the associations responsible for these programs report that nearly every chemical plant has attested to compliance with one or more of them.

And yet DHS claims to need the authority under law to regulate these facilities because “DHS determined that voluntary efforts alone will not sufficiently address security for the entire sector. . . . voluntary efforts alone are not sufficient to assure the public of the industry‚Äôs preparedness.” And they also claim that “the extent of security preparedness at these facilities is unknown.”

This is about scaring people with a virtually non-existent problem, and creating another needless layer of bureaucracy to make people feel safer, when in fact, the risks inherent to chemical plants are, by and large, already well under control, and the additional bureaucracy is unlikely to gain much, if any, additional security, and as was the case with airport security, is most likely to make matters worse.

If you work at a chemical plant with not enough security, feel free to contact me.

Oh, and a word about those so-called inherently safer technologies. The terrorist organization Greenpeace supports them, which is reason enough for me to oppose them.

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