Activists Criticize Sen. Bond's Chemical Safety Bill

The Working Group on Community Right-to-Know is calling Senator Christopher Bond's (R-Mo.) chemical safety bill a "know nothing, do nothing" proposal "that would conceal dangerous chemical industry practices while doing nothing to protect communities from chemical terrorism."

Bond says the legislation will protect local communities from terrorist attacks at chemical plants. According to him, the Community Protection from Chemical Terrorism Act would prevent terrorists from gaining a virtual blueprint for their attacks by accessing publicly available government mandated reports from chemical facilities.

"Communities have a right to prevent terrorists from using government information to target and attack chemical facilities in their backyard," said Bond, during a meeting with Ray Gruender, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Missouri, and other federal and local law enforcement officials. "After the terrible tragedy of September 11, we must be even more vigilant not to help terrorists exploit and harm our vulnerable communities."

Federal law currently requires 15,000 chemical facilities across the country to estimate their worst-case scenario accident and send a report describing the conditions under which such an accident would occur to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Federal law also requires EPA to make these reports, known as off-site consequence analysis (OCA), available to the public. OCA reports include the vulnerable chemical, the conditions under which a release would occur, the distance a toxic cloud would travel, the number of people who might be hurt by a release, and any vulnerable targets in harm's way such as hospitals or schools.

According to EPA, at least 123 plants each keep amounts of chemicals that, if released, could form a deadly vapor cloud that would put more than one million people in danger. An OCA report submitted by a Kansas City plant shows that 850,000 Missourians would be seriously affected by a chlorine release forming a toxic cloud over a 14-mile radius.

Bond's bill will allow the government to continue to collect OCA information for official emergency and disaster response activities. The bill will also allow the public to view OCA information with only the specific facility name and address withheld. A move Bond says will prevent terrorists from using OCA data to target specific communities, but which the Working Group claims will keep residents in the dark about their local chemical facilities. The Bond bill also expands membership in local emergency response committees to include members of environmental groups, underscoring their role in protecting communities from chemical accidents. Environmental groups point out local environmental and community organizations have been required on LEPCs since they were founded by the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act of 1986.

Bond, however, remains undeterred. "According to the Department of Justice, chemical facilities are exactly the type of targets terrorists would attack to create mayhem and destruction," says Bond. "Many such facilities exist in well-populated areas, where a chemical release could result in mass casualties and widespread destruction. And yet, we have current law making public precisely the type of factors that a terrorist would weigh when planning an attack. We must protect our communities from attack."

Paul Orum, director of the Working Group, agrees that citizens need to be protected, but adds the biggest threat to community safety might not come from terrorists, but from what he calls "dangerous practices" at local chemical plants. "Bond's bill offers nothing more than the same old "know nothing, do nothing" government that puts us all at risk in the first place," he says.

Orum believes the country needs a vigorous federal program to reduce chemical hazards and improve site security. Sen. Jon Corzine (D-N.J.) proposed the Chemical Security Act (S. 1602), which would require the U.S. attorney general's office and EPA to quickly identify chemical facilities that are at risk and require those facilities to increase security and reduce hazards.

"We need to be concerned about process conditions and the reactions of chemicals in the context of chemical manufacturing and industrial processes," Corzine told members of the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board. "The system we have is not getting the job done."

The chemical safety board is investigating the causes of chemical accidents in the last two decades, and is charged with making policy recommendations for improved safety procedures.

"We shouldn't wait for one more incident to occur before we take steps to reduce the risk of a deadly accident involving reactive chemicals," Corzine added. He said the Justice Department warned more than two years ago that the risk of a terrorist attack on a chemical plant was "real and credible."

"The time for study is over," he said. "We must take the threat of more terrorist threats seriously and move to tighten security at chemical facilities, and take action to reduce the danger for the millions of people who live in close proximity to these facilities."

Orum suggests that the Bond bill may be intended as a maneuver to block substantive reforms such as Corzine proposes, and he points out that there are alternatives to many dangerous practices. Sodium hypochlorite can clean our water as well as chlorine gas, he notes, and farmers can use ammonia fertilizer that is stored away from towns as readily as fertilizer stored in populated areas. "It's time to fix the problem, not cover it up," Orum says.

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