Report Documents Chemical Security Risks and Recommendations


(Beyond Pesticides, November 25, 2008)

A new report on U.S. chemical security, which includes two pesticide and 30 bleach manufacturing plants on its list of 101 most dangerous chemical facilities, was released November 19, 2008 by the Washington-based think tank Center for American Progress (CAP). The report, Chemical Security 101: What You Don’t Have Can’t Leak, or Be Blown Up by Terrorists, calls on chemical plants to substitute for their most hazardous chemicals and processes to protect the lives and health of 80 million people living near the 101 worst facilities.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and numerous security experts have repeatedly warned that terrorists could use industrial chemicals as improvised weapons of mass destruction. However, according to CAP, current chemical security efforts are inadequate to protect workplaces and communities.

“Indeed, temporary standards enacted two years ago (and set to expire in 2009) focus almost entirely on physical security measures, such as adding gates and guards,” say report authors Paul Orum and Reece Rushing. “These measures, however worthy, cannot assure protection against a concerted attack, insider sabotage, or catastrophic release. Nor do they protect communities along chemical delivery routes. More than 90 percent of the 101 most dangerous facilities ship or receive their highest-hazard chemical by railcar or truck.”

On October 10, 2008, Greenpeace and 35 labor and environmental groups called on Congress to pass legislation on chemical plant security before the “interim” law expires on October 4, 2009. In March the House Homeland Security Committee adopted the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Act of 2008 (H.R. 5577) in a bipartisan vote. H.R. 5577 addresses many of the flaws in the interim law. However, according to the letter, the chemical manufacturers lobby opposed it and favors making the interim law permanent. A jurisdictional dispute over whether the DHS or the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) should be the lead agency regulating chemical facilities also helped derail legislation in 2008. When Congress returns in January 2009 they will have only nine months to complete this legislation.

The report authors recommend protecting communities by removing the possibility of a toxic gas release by converting facilities to safer, more secure alternative technologies. While many of the products produced at the facilities are necessary, such as the safe drinking water produced at water treatment facilities that use dangerous chlorine gas, the report stops short of evaluating the necessity of products like pesticides, which could be eliminated.

The report focuses on conversion to safer and more secure chemicals or processes already being used by similar facilities that do not endanger large numbers of people. In particular:

  • Thirty bleach plants could remove danger to some 50 million Americans by generating chlorine on-site without rail shipment and bulk storage. This includes the Clorox Company in Los Angeles, which puts over 5.5 million people in danger.
  • Fifteen water utilities could remove danger to 17 million people by converting from chlorine gas (and sometimes sulfur dioxide gas) to alternatives that include liquid bleach or ultraviolet light. This includes the Howard F. Curren wastewater plant in Tampa, Fla., which puts more than a million people in danger.
  • Eight petroleum refineries could remove danger to 11 million Americans by substituting toxic hydrofluoric acid, used in refining crude oil, with sulfuric acid or emerging solid acid catalysts. This includes the ExxonMobil Corp. refinery in Chalmette, La., which puts over 1 million people in danger.
  • A variety of safer, more secure alternatives are available to 21 facilities that receive chemicals by rail or truck for use in making such diverse products as oil additives, water treatment chemicals, and materials for bulletproof vests. This includes Stepan Company in Elwood, Ill., which puts 1.2 million people in danger in producing industrial and household cleaners with sulfur trioxide. Using on-site sulfur burning equipment would eliminate this danger.

In the case of the pesticide manufacturing, which uses chlorine to produce pentachloronitrobenzene and chlorthalonil, the report recommends that the plants generate chlorine as needed without bulk storage or co-locate with an as-needed source of chlorine.

According to CAP, chemical facility conversions are possible and many have already switched to safer, more secure alternatives, and some have saved money. “While gates and guards always cost money, facilities that remove hazardous chemicals reduce their need for costly physical security. They also may reduce regulatory burdens, improve efficiency, upgrade production, and better protect workers,” say the report authors.

They continue, “Despite this opportunity, the federal government currently has no plan, program, or authority to spur removal of unnecessary catastrophic chemical hazards‚ or even to require chemical facilities to examine safer and more secure alternatives. To address these deficiencies, Congress should establish a comprehensive chemical security program rooted in identifying, developing, and leveraging the use of safer and more secure technologies.”

CAP recommends:

  • Require chemical facilities to assess and use feasible alternatives that reduce the potential harm of a terrorist attack
  • Create financial incentives for facilities to convert by requiring liability insurance and targeting conversion funding to publicly owned facilities and first-adopters of innovative technologies
    Invest in collaborative research to identify safer, more secure alternatives
  • Utilize the experience and knowledge of facility employees in security assessments, plans, and inspections
  • Build the oversight capacity of government agencies and require administrative transparency to hold those agencies accountable
  • Ensure equal enforcement of standards without special treatment for facilities in voluntary industry security programs
  • Include all relevant industries, in particular currently exempted water utilities
  • Respect the right of states to set more protective standards if federal actions won’t protect communities