EPA Addresses Chemical Site Security, Slowly

Although recent legislative efforts intended to improve chemical plant site security stalled in Congress, EPA is beginning to move ahead with its own voluntary efforts to deal with fears that terrorists could attack one of the thousands of facilities that use hazardous chemicals.

EPA official Mikal Shabazz explained what the agency is and is not doing during a workshop devoted to enforcement and security challenges at EPA Region III's Emergency Preparedness and Prevention Conference, held earlier this month in Baltimore. Shabazz said the Office of Management and Budget has determined that despite EPA's long regulatory experience with hazardous chemical facilities, and its mandate to protect the public, the agency has no authority to require chemical companies to improve site security or substitute safer chemicals.

Approximately 15,000 facilities have submitted Risk Management Plans (RMP) to EPA, said Shabazz, which means that these sites pose at least some risk to the public or the environment in the event of an accidental or criminal release of chemicals.

EPA is currently conducting "site security visits." Shabazz explained that although such a visit is not a vulnerability assessment, nor a regulatory inspection, nor a comprehensive chemical safety audit, the program does have some real benefits.

"We're entering into a dialogue to raise awareness and to look at the actual situation in a particular plant," he said. "We learn a number of things about security and hazard reduction, determine if the measures are adequate, and if not encourage them to address these vulnerabilities."

These visits are allowing EPA to gather information for Congress and the public about the nation's vulnerabilities. Shabazz said the data could be used in the future to develop guidance documents or for rulemaking.

But questions to Shabazz revealed the limitations of EPA's current approach to the problem of potential terrorist attacks. He said EPA has only conducted security visits at "15 or 16" of the 15,000 RMP sites across the nation.

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