Issues related to chemical site security ," or the lack thereof ," generated a certain amount anxiety even before the events of Sept. 11, 2001. Back then, however, a major terrorist attack on U.S. soil seemed unlikely.
Fast-forward to the new post-September 11 reality. Additional terrorist attacks, including those that might use chemical plants as "weapons" of destruction, loom large on the minds of industry and the public.
As government and industry leaders scramble to prevent further attacks, some individuals and groups are pushing for further restrictions on sensitive information that could end up in the wrong hands. Concerns center around the Offsite Consequence Analysis (OCA) information required under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Risk Management Program ," long the subject of public and government agency concern.
In a Feb. 10, 1999, congressional statement, Robert M. Burnham, chief of the FBI's Domestic Terrorism Section said: "The FBI believes there are legitimate law enforcement concerns about the potential misuse of OCA data." He specifically referred to the "SOURGAS" case, which involved four KKK members who plotted to place an improvised explosive device on a hydrogen sulfide tank at a refinery near Dallas. Although the FBI was able to infiltrate the group and prevent the attack, Burnham said the incident "highlights better than any scenario we could create how worldwide unfettered access to this information could be used to facilitate a criminal or terrorist attack in the U.S."
Ultimately, the U.S. Department of Justice and EPA issued a final ruling that limits Internet access to the most sensitive OCA data. Paper copies of the complete OCA documentation are available in federal reading rooms across the country, but document removal and reproduction are not allowed.
However, some believe such measures do not go far enough.
Sen. Christopher Bond, R-Mo., recently introduced legislation to amend the Clean Air Act to further restrict access to OCA information. The bill, S. 2579, would allow the government to continue to collect OCA data for official emergency and disaster response activities, but would withhold from public view facility names and addresses.
"The old presumption was that the public disclosure of this information helped protect communities," a spokesperson from Sen. Bond's office told Chemical Processing. "After September 11, we now know that is no longer true."
The Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) praised Bond's actions in introducing the bill. "Since September 11, the case for reforming the Right to Know law is stronger than ever," said Angela Logomasi, CEI's director of risk and environmental policy. "The administration has taken some steps in this area, but it has not gone far enough."
Others, including Greenpeace, were not so complimentary of the senator's efforts. "Nothing in the bill does anything to eliminate the targeting of U.S. chemical facilities," maintained Rick Hind, legislative director for Greenpeace. "It neither requires any new security at chemical plants nor does it ask them to look at ditching obsolete technologies and chemicals."
The American Chemistry Council (ACC) said it would trust the decisions of Congress and security leaders. "We generally have a bias toward openness with our neighbors to let them know what it is that we are doing and making and how we make our facilities as safe and secure as possible," said Chris VandenHeuvel, an ACC spokesperson. "But if federal security experts suggest there's certain information that's not appropriate to be made available because of national security concerns, then we'll follow their lead."
While Congress continues to debate information-access issues, the government and the chemical industry are working hard to beef up site security. On the macro level, President Bush proposed in June the creation of a Department of Homeland Security. The mission of the new department, said the president, would be "to prevent terrorist attacks within the states, to reduce America's vulnerability to terrorism, and to minimize the damage and recover from attacks that may occur."
According to a June 7 Associated Press report, the White House's Office of Homeland Security is working on a plan that would require the nation's 15,000 chemical, water and waste-treatment plants to perform terrorist vulnerability assessments and fix any problems. Indeed, EPA Administrator Christie Whitman recently announced the availability of "water security" grants to help large drinking water utilities to assess vulnerabilities.
Much of the chemical industry is not waiting for a government mandate to take action, however. Under its Responsible Care initiative, ACC recently adopted a new Security Code that requires site prioritization, followed by a tool-enabled analysis of potential security threats, vulnerabilities and consequences. Among other actions, member companies must identify, develop and implement any necessary security measures. All measures will be subject to third-party verification.
But Greenpeace's Hind believes the voluntary program will not work. "It may be well meaning, but past experience shows it's just public relations," he maintained. "Under the Corzine bill,* they would have to beef up security under a mandate under the law, and that would be verified by EPA and the Justice Department. The airline industry didn't ask to be allowed to do a voluntary program, but the chemical industry expects [its efforts] to be voluntary. Why are they special?"
ACC's VandenHeuvel defended industry efforts. "In developing our plan to enhance security at our facilities, we worked in partnership with federal and state security experts, including the Office of Homeland Security, the FBI, the Defense Department, the Coast Guard and others," he stressed. "All of them have been very impressed by the way we quickly stepped up to the plate. Now our industry must really perform." CP
* Legislation that would require the U.S. attorney general's office and EPA to identify chemical facilities at risk and require those facilities to increase security and reduce hazards.