Homeland Security experts refer to chemical plants as “pre-positioned weapons of mass destruction.” Yet nearly five years since the September 11 attacks, the Bush Administration has done almost nothing to address this glaring vulnerability.
I am pleased that the Senate Homeland Security Committee unanimously adopted legislation last week to address the widespread risks posed by chemical facilities.
Over 15,000 chemical facilities nation-wide store sufficient quantities of hazardous chemicals to likely cause death or injury to the surrounding communities if released. The chemical industry’s own data indicates that, in a worst case release, toxic chemicals could threaten more than one million people at over 100 facilities across the nation. More guards and higher fences are not enough to protect our communities from the dangers posed by chemical facilities.
Rather, owners and operators of chemical plants need to take practical steps to reduce the inherent hazards posed by their facilities. For example, swimming pool service companies have made their neighborhoods safer by switching from chlorine gas to bleach or chlorine tablets.
Unfortunately, thousands of communities remain vulnerable because facilities in their towns have not chosen to implement such measures. For example, nearly 3,000 drinking water and waste water treatment plants still use chlorine gas instead of liquid bleach or ultraviolet light.
Should implementation of inherently safer technology be mandatory for all chemical facilities? No. That has never been my position. Rather, when I chaired this Committee in 2002, we unanimously adopted legislation that would have required consideration and implementation of inherently safer technologies “where practicable.”
Senator Inhofe’s bill that passed out of the Committee during the last Congress also would have required implementation of alternative approaches where “practicable in the judgment of the owner and operator.”
Likewise, Senator Lieberman’s proposal last week would require implementation of inherently safer technology only when it would significantly reduce the risks of serious injuries and was practical.
Some have suggested that inherently safer technologies merely shift the risk from one location to another. However, such technologies will be evaluated on a case by case basis and implemented only if they would make the community safer.
Let me also mention two other elements that are critical for effective chemical security legislation.
First, to ensure public accountability, citizens and local officials must be allowed to determine if a facility in their community is in compliance and to challenge Department of Homeland Security actions—or inactions—if necessary.
Second, Congress should preserve the right of states to implement more stringent laws as needed to protect their citizens.
In conclusion, legislation to address the risks posed by chemical facilities is long overdue.
I look forward to this hearing and will work to ensure that Congress enacts a strong chemical security law.