Congress Eyes Security at Chemical Plants

Representatives from the U.S. chemical industry tell Congress the industry is moving to improve security at its plants.

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Provoked by fears of another terrorist attack, the U.S. chemical industry is moving aggressively to improve security at its plants, according to Randy Speight, Jr., director of the Chemical Transportation Emergency Center.

Speight spoke on behalf of the American Chemistry Council (ACC) at an Oct. 10 House subcommittee hearing on the risks terrorism poses to the nation''s environment and water resources. At the hearing ACC also asked Congress for help in the anti-terrorism effort.

"The principal thing we''re calling for is information," said an ACC spokesman just before the hearing. "Our planning and actions when it comes to security have to based on risk assessment, and the FBI and other agencies can help with this."

Whether information about hazards is a weapon in the fight against terrorism, or a potential weapon for terrorists themselves, was one issue raised, but left unresolved by the hearing. The chemical industry itself appeared to be of two minds on the issue.

While calling on the government to share more information about threats to chemical facilities, the ACC asked EPA to revisit and temporarily revise its policy about making off-site consequences analysis data available to the public. Because of 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act, chemical facilities are required to report publicly on their risk management programs (RMP).

Consumer groups have called on the industry to make this information available on the Internet, arguing that this will increase pressure on business to find safer substitutes for hazardous chemicals currently in use.

But last year concerns about terrorism prompted the government to nix posting sensitive off-site consequences information on Web sites; instead the information was made available at reading rooms throughout the nation. In light of the events of Sept. 11, however, even the reading room policy is now under review.

Speight outlined steps that ACC members are currently taking to improve security, among them:

  • Tightening access to facilities;
  • Requiring two drivers for all shipments, background checks on all drivers, and no stops during shipments of hazardous chemicals;
  • Permitting cleaning crews to work only during business hours;
  • Communicating and coordinating with local emergency officials.

ACC expects to complete a set of management guidelines on security by the end of September.

The chair of the subcommittee, Rep. John Duncan, R-Tenn., asked Speight if he thought enough has been done to increase security at the nation''s chemical plants.

"I suggest enough is not being done, but a lot is being done," Speight replied.

However, there was no indication at the hearing that Congress is contemplating increased regulation of the chemical industry.

Also testifying at the hearing were representatives from the Army Corps of Engineers and the Tennessee Valley Authority. Committee members appeared to be more concerned about what would happen if terrorists destroyed dams or nuclear power plants.

In attempting to prepare for the unpredictable in a country suddenly filled with hazards, Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Oreg. expressed the difficulty that Congress, and the nation, are grappling with.

"These people didn''t bring anything with them except money and knowledge," said DeFazio. "They used what''s here."

by James L. Nash

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