Terror threat at chemical plants needs action, say auditors

Wednesday, March 19, 2003

WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration and lawmakers have not followed through on their own concerns that terrorists could turn the nation's chemical plants into weapons of mass destruction, congressional auditors said Tuesday.

Congress and the administration concluded after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that the plants were vulnerable, and the CIA warned a year ago of the potential for an al-Qaida attack on U.S. chemical facilities.

Nine months ago, administration officials agreed chemical facilities should be required to assess terrorist risks.

The Environmental Protection Agency planned to require tighter security and safer chemical processes, but chemical manufacturers threatened lawsuits challenging the agency's authority. EPA instead decided to rely on voluntary measures promised by the industry while seeking legislation to enforce new rules.

Officials in the new Homeland Security Department agreed new laws were needed. The administration, however, has submitted no proposed legislation and Congress has done virtually nothing to address the problem, the General Accounting Office said.

"Despite all efforts since the events of Sept. 11, 2001, to protect the nation from terrorism, the extent of security preparedness at U.S. chemical facilities is unknown," the GAO auditors said in a report.

Danger to thousands

About a fifth of the nation's 15,000 chemical facilities are close enough to population centers that a terrorist attack could endanger at least 10,000 lives, according to the report.

"It is imperative that we act before terrorists do," said Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., the committee's chairman.

Rep. John Dingell of Michigan, the committee's senior Democrat, called it an outrage the federal government doesn't know how vulnerable chemical plants are to terrorist attack.

"The administration is more than lackadaisical, it is in defiance of the law," he said, referring to a still-unfinished Justice Department assessment of chemical security that Congress ordered in 1999 and was due seven months ago. A spokesman said the department's preliminary draft was given to committee aides but the final version is being screened for sensitive security-related information.

The most progress made toward a federal plan for ensuring chemical safety came from the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee eight months ago.

Under its former chairman, Sen. James Jeffords, I-Vt., the committee unanimously approved a bill to require that chemical plants that pose the biggest threats assess their security vulnerabilities and develop plans to increase safeguards, including safer chemical processes.

That vote was followed by intense lobbying against the bill from trade groups representing the chemical and oil industries and a broad range of other businesses that rely on the chemicals produced at the plants. Seven Republican senators on the committee expressed reservations about the bill they had voted for.

One of those senators, James Inhofe of Oklahoma, is now the committee chairman. He has been working to offer an alternative bill that would have fewer requirements of industry, but it has not been publicly released.

Ken Hill, executive secretary for the Homeland Security Department, said in response to the GAO report that "voluntary efforts alone will not be sufficient to assure an appropriate level of security across the chemical industry."

He said the department "looks forward to working with Congress to advance this important homeland security initiative."

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