Report: Government Has Failed to Assess Terrorist Threat to Chemical Plants

While the nation braced itself for the heightened risk of terrorism due to the war in Iraq, the General Accounting Office (GAO) issued a report earlier this week pointing out that hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens could be harmed by terrorist attacks on chemical facilities.

"Chemical facilities may be attractive targets for terrorists intent on causing massive damage," the report states.

Sen. Jon Corzine, D-NJ, said the report confirms the need for action on chemical plant security, and that it calls for just the kind of legislation he has already introduced. Corzine's bill (S.1602), fiercely opposed by the chemical industry, would require facilities to assess their vulnerabilities and improve their security by using safer technologies.

"This report confirms that chemical facilities are obvious targets for terrorists, endangering the millions of Americans who live and work around them," said the senator. "When it comes to homeland security, we can't rely on voluntary programs."

But the GAO report appears unlikely to settle the differences between the chemical industry and proponents of S. 1602. The American Chemistry Council (ACC), which led the charge against Corzine's bill, said that it also supports GAO's "recommendation for a national strategy to address chemical security."

ACC says it is urging Congress to pass legislation that will ensure all chemical facilities conduct vulnerability assessments and address deficiencies, while giving the Department of Homeland Security strong enforcement authority to make sure these plants are secure against terrorism threats.

The investigative arm of Congress, GAO was asked to examine available information on the threats from terrorism faced by U.S. chemical facilities, federal requirements for security preparedness, actions taken by federal agencies to assess the vulnerability of the industry, and voluntary actions the chemical industry has taken to address security preparedness.

To answer these questions, GAO interviewed government officials at a number of agencies, including EPA, OSHA and the Chemical Safety Board, as well as industry associations such as ACC and the American Petroleum Institute. GAO also visited seven chemical facilities selected from EPA's Risk Management Plan (RMP) database.

The report's findings include:

  • EPA located 123 U.S. chemical plants where a "worst-case" scenario would expose more than 1 million people to a cloud of toxic gas, 700 facilities potentially threaten at least 100,000 people, and 3,000 facilities could threaten at least 10,000 people;
  • No federal laws explicitly require that chemical facilities assess vulnerabilities or take security actions to safeguard their facilities against attack;
  • The federal government has not comprehensively assessed the chemical industry's vulnerabilities to terrorist attacks;
  • The chemical industry has undertaken a number of voluntary initiatives to address security concerns, but EPA has concluded that these efforts "reach only a portion" of the 15,000 facilities subject to EPA's RMP provisions.

The report makes a number of recommendations, including a legislative proposal "to require chemical facilities to expeditiously assess their vulnerability to terrorist attacks and, where necessary, require these facilities to take corrective action."

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