Plant security: The quiet before the storm?

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September 11's second grim anniversary is now upon us, but the U.S. has failed to set any national standards for chemical plant security. Engineers and managers, grappling with safety and environmental regulations and relentless pressure to "do more with less," are leading the charge to secure their plants, process control and IT assets -- and the public's safety.

But can their efforts alone be enough? The chemical industry is steering a course between the practical and the paranoid as it climbs the steep post-9/11 learning curve.

Al Qaeda is waiting, though, and it's a patient, persistent enemy; eight years, after all, separated the first, bungled WTC bombing from the 2001 debacle. And, at this point, the chemical industry isn't ready for it. "At most chemical plants, existing security couldn't stand up to a guy with a six-shooter and a bomb," says Sal De Pasquale. A security consultant based in Atlanta, De Pasquale is chief architect of the Center for Chemical Process Safety's (CCPS) site-vulnerability assessment method, which many U.S. chemical companies are using today to gauge their readiness.

While supporting "rational" security legislation, the chemical industry continues to argue that minimum oversight will allow it to best achieve security goals. But consider those companies severely squeezed by tightening margins: Can they make the investments needed? Environmentalists, whose unauthorized "visits" to chemical facilities gave some companies a wakeup call, can still name firms whose security strategies amount to little more than placing "No Trespassing" signs on their properties.

National chemical security legislation will be critical to establishing a level playing field, and will guide companies after they've completed their vulnerability studies, says De Pasquale. It will also protect the public, he says, since, without regulations, the average chlorine manufacturing or storage site poses a greater risk than the typical nuclear plant.

Standards will be painful

However, raising plant security standards to the levels required will be "painful and expensive," he says, and some facilities may have to shut down. Guards and fences alone won't protect anyone. But, right now, security guards at the nation's highest-risk chemical plants aren't even armed. An attack at any one of these plants would threaten one million lives. Is a billy club any match for a suicide bomber?

If security regulations do not pass, the chemical industry has only itself to blame. When Senator Jon Corzine (D-N.J.) proposed the first comprehensive chemical security bill in Congress last year, chemical companies pounced upon the bill's letter, ignoring its spirit. The biggest sticking points, EPA enforcement and inherently safer material substitutions, might have been negotiated. First, the bill named EPA as the overseeing authority only because there was no Department of Homeland Security (DHS) at the time. In addition, it stipulated that inherently safer material substitutions be considered only when they could be made at low cost. "We only pushed for use of safer technologies where practicable,' and that's the language we've always used," Corzine says." There are clearly instances where costs [are] minor and the potential for saving lives, huge."

In torpedoing the first clearly articulated plan setting national chemical security standards, the industry may have won the battle against excessive government control. Now it risks losing the war -- not only the war against terror, but the struggle for improved public opinion. As Congress takes its summer recess this month with no clear national standards in sight, we can only hope that terrorists don't try to attack any U.S. chemical plant.

Loopholes in Inhofe's proposal

The chemical security bill advanced by Senator James Inhofe (R-Okla) last May offers another opportunity to develop security standards, but it doesn't require that DHS review any company's vulnerability assessments or security plans. It also allows DHS to exempt from review any company that has completed a voluntary vulnerability assessment.

And voluntary assessments alone can't guarantee security. Chemical companies can have third parties review and certify their assessments. Like ISO audits, though,the reviews merely certify that the company has done what it said it would do, rather than the best it could.

Where chemical security is concerned, "one size will not fit all," as SOCMA president Joe Acker has said. However, the industry can't dodge the difficult questions ahead. An end to debate and quiet in Congress may bring short-term relief, but threaten long-term danger and irreparable damage to the image of an industry that's still struggling to regain the public's trust.

By Agnes Shanley, executive managing editor

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