Suppose you lived on a farm, and were trying to protect the place from roving bands of marauders intent on murder and mayhem.  You put bars on the windows, security cameras around the perimeter, locked lids on all the tanks of water your livestock drink from, and a number of other steps you don’t want to talk about.

Then your neighbor comes to visit, and over coffee points out the window to the big `ol propane tank 20 feet away and says, “Joe, maybe you ought to think about doing something with the propane tank.  If one of those were to get blown up, it would take out your house and whole family with it.”  You scowl and say, “What am I supposed to do, run this place on the wind and the sun?”

Some time goes by, and your preacher comes by on a Sunday afternoon for dinner, and says, “Joe, I’ve heard that you’re putting all kinds of security systems in place out here, but you haven’t done anything about your propane tank.  Your hired man just waves in the propane truck to refill the tank with a smile and a wave.  Sounds like you might have a security gap there.”

Your wife, knowing that this is a sore point (your brother owns the propane distribution company), quickly changes the topic: “Reverend, you must try some of this cream pie!”

OK, enough of the down-home story; this isn’t “Prairie Home Companion” and I’m certainly not as talented as Garrison Keillor.  But we have just the same problem.  The administration talks a good line about homeland defense, makes you take off your shoes at the airport, and has more colors of security alerts than a roll of mixed flavor Life Savers.  But there’s something important they’re not addressing:

The threat of terrorist attacks on our chemical plants and refineries.  How far are they willing to displease one of their constituencies to protect the public health and safety?

(((More Below The Fold)))

And it’s not as if we haven’t been warned repeatedly; in fact this was a recognized problem even before 9/11:

In a 1998 report, Countering the New Terrorism the Rand Corporation (an R&D think tank) made one of the first efforts to analyze what appeared to be a new type of terrorism. Rand has been reporting on terrorism since 1972. The impetus behind the report was the increasingly deadly, and highly organized, nature of terrorist attacks and the potential for the use of weapons of mass destruction and information superstructure attacks. The security of domestic industrial infrastructure was one of the major areas of concern in the report.

In the wake of the terrorist acts of 1997 and 1998, the U.S. Commission on National Security in the 21st Century was organized as a Federal advisory committee chartered by the Secretary of Defense. The commission’s aim was “to provide the most comprehensive government-sponsored review of U.S. national security in more than 50 years.” Chaired by former senators Gary Hart and Warren Rudman, the group released three reports, all before the 9/11 attacks. The final report, “Road Map for National Security: Imperative for Change” released on February 15, 2001, expressed concern about the safety and oversight of U.S. chemical plants.

After September 11, the nonpartisan Council on Foreign Relations reconvened the group from the U.S. Commission on National Security in the 21st Century again under the co-chairmanship of Gary Hart and Warren Rudman. The group released the report America Still Unprepared — America Still in Danger in 2002. The report noted that Hart and Rudman’s earlier calls to action had gone virtually unnoticed.

The PBS series NOW has reported on this, as did 60 Minutes.  Additional information here as well.  (The PBS site has links to the above-mentioned reports.)

Senator Jon Corzine (D-New Jersey) has recognized this problem and attempted to do something about it.  He filed a bill after September 11th that would require high priority chemical facilities to begin a shift to safer chemicals and processes.  The White House and many Republicans have fought this legislation along with the chemical industry, in favor of a voluntary approach.  At first, EPA was proposed as the agency that would conduct inspections of plant security, as they have long experience conducting inspections of chemical plants for environmental compliance under RCRA, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA is the law that regulates how chemical waste is managed.). This was quickly rejected by the administration and the chemical industry (the latter not wanting any more visits from EPA if they could avoid it!), in favor of having Homeland Defense or some other less-prepared department assume the responsibility.  In the end, mandatory inspections were dropped altogether.  Unfortunately, the voluntary approach has accomplished very little.

And as Sonny and Cher said, “the beat goes on…”

Today’s Chicago Tribune reports on a meeting yesterday on this very topic by the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee.

Carol Andress of the Environmental Defense Fund testified that according to EPA, each of 2,500 to 2,800 facilities would put more than 10,000 people at risk of injury or death if there were a major chemical release.  A Congressional Research Service report found that major states at risk include Texas, with 67 facilities that would pose a worst-case scenario hazard affecting from 100,000 to 1,000,000 people, California with 58, Louisiana with 50, and Illinois with 25.

The committee, led by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), is developing a bill that could include mandatory security arrangements enforced by the federal government.  A similar bill by Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who requested the CRS report, failed this year in the house.

Markey testified:

“There are nightclubs in New York City that are harder to get into than some of our chemical plants.”

The chemical industry believes they are handling the problem adequately with voluntary security measures, and no federal involvement is needed:

Martin Durbin, director of security and operations for the American Chemistry Council, told the committee that his group’s member companies–responsible for 90 percent of industrial chemical production in the country–had spent $2 billion on security improvements and updated the council’s security code.

This code calls for member companies to set a four-tier priority list for potential threats to their facilities, assess the particular vulnerabilities of the facilities, enhance their security “commensurate with risks” and have local law enforcement and other local first responders verify that security arrangements were in place.

Durbin said his organization remains opposed to giving the federal government regulatory authority over chemical plant security…

The council “has been dubious of any regulatory initiative that involves government agencies or other third parties reviewing and approving or disapproving facilities’ decisions regarding inherent safety,” he told lawmakers, adding that the council “firmly believes that judgments about inherent safety are fundamentally process safety decisions that must ultimately be left to the [industry] process safety professionals.”

However, the personnel at these facilities are not so sanguine:

Glenn Erwin, prevention program director for the United Steel, Paper and Forestry, Rubber, Manufacturing, Energy, Allied Industrial and Service Workers International Union, said his organization last year surveyed 125 facilities that were adhering to the industry’s voluntary plans and found “serious gaps between the ideal we desire and the reality with which we live.”

“As recently as this summer, I stood at the main entrance to one of the nation’s major oil refineries and watched pickup trucks only slow down as guards waved them through,” Erwin said.

“When I asked the employee standing with me who they were, he said they were temporary workers employed by contractors.”

If we’re going to be serious about homeland security, let’s do more than make people take off their shoes and leave their nail clippers at the door.  Mr. President, don’t try and tell me that you take homeland security seriously until you show me some action on chemical plant security that is more than smoke and mirrors.

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