Security poses an inherent industry dilemma

Sept. 21, 2006
Industry faces the threat of draconian demands from Congress as chemical plants remain an attractive targets for terrorism attacks, according to Mark Rosenzweig, editor in chief of Chemical Processing.

Chemical plants in heavily populated areas clearly are attractive targets for terrorists because of the potential for massive casualties and damage. Attacks could lead to emissions of hazardous or even toxic gases and particulates or explosions and fires that could devastate nearby neighborhoods. The chemical industry, through the American Chemistry Council (ACC), Arlington, Va., voluntarily acted on these threats soon after 9/11, developing the Responsible Care Security Code and making it mandatory for its 133 members. These companies account for 85% of the chemicals’ production capacity in the U.S. and have invested almost $3 billion to enhance security in the last five years, says ACC.

However, other chemical companies aren’t responding as proactively. Perhaps they don’t appreciate the dangers. Or maybe they feel they can’t afford the costs — or think that not spending on upgrading security gives them a competitive advantage over more responsible firms. Regardless, their lack of action risks dire consequences for their sites and for the chemical industry as a whole. Because plants often are located near each other, a security lapse at one facility can endanger others even if they have tightened their security.

What we need is for Congress to compel all chemical manufacturers to adequately address security. ACC certainly agrees. “… while ACC members are industry leaders in the charge to improve security, the federal government must play its role to be sure other chemical facilities take the same type of aggressive steps that we’ve taken voluntarily to protect this critical part of our national infrastructure,” says Jack Gerard, its president and CEO.

While the Department of Homeland Security is taking some steps, action on Capitol Hill is overdue. ACC, for its part, is urging Congress to pass comprehensive security legislation before adjournment. As of press time, this hasn’t happened. Perhaps, that is a good thing, though, as Dave Moore and Dorothy Kellogg of the AcuTech Consulting Group explain in the article Washington targets plant security.

The House Homeland Security Bill, H.R. 5695, lists a number of methods to reduce the consequences of a terrorist attack, including use of less hazardous or benign substances and of smaller quantities of “substances of concern.” Basically, the House bill would mandate significant efforts by plants to implement inherent safety (CP, May 2004, A New Spin on Safety).

Inherently safer technology (IST) certainly has a role to play in enhancing the security of the chemical industry. “IST concepts are worthwhile as engineering design guides and as a general philosophy for designing, constructing, maintaining and operating chemical facilities,” note Moore and Kellogg. They add that IST strategies are best implemented early in the process design stage for new units, where they also may lead to additional benefits, such as minimizing equipment or inventory size, but that costs and other tradeoffs limit the feasibility of extending IST to existing facilities.

However, Congress unfortunately doesn’t always understand technical issues, let alone nuanced ones like those posed by IST — e.g., is overall risk reduced by keeping less of a hazardous chemical at a plant if that requires more shipments and handling of the chemical? Some backers, as Moore and Kellogg warn, see IST as a panacea for security concerns even at current sites, as a relatively obvious and simple approach to execute and regulate, while disparaging proven “deter, detect, delay and mitigate” strategies as less effective or reliable. So, we must do all that we can as an industry to counter such voices, to help legislators understand the limitations and tradeoffs of IST. Otherwise, we face another threat — that of having to deal with demanding security mandates of dubious real value.

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