Trend: Chertoff announces end to chemical plants

Published 20 March 2006

Not a moment too soon. One does not have to agree with DHS secretary Michael Chertoff on everything to say that he has made many important decisions to make the United States safer. Few if any of his decisions will ever be as important to the safety and well-being of the American people as his insistence that the free ride is now almost over for U.S. chemical plants that have failed to strengthen protection against terrorists or accidental leaks. Chemical plants which resist costly security measures can no longer expect to be “free riders” among the 15,000 privately operated chemical facilities, Chertoff warns. “They’re counting on the fact that the industry in general has a good level of investment, and they figure they’ll hide among the leaves and essentially freeload on this security work done by others,” Chertoff, will say today in a speech outlining new steps for chemical plants safeguards.

Security experts have long placed the chemical industry at the top of the list of likely terror targets. Congressional investigators have revealed spotty results in how well the chemical industry is prepared to respond in the event of an attack. The chemical industry has resisted federal security and safety regulations, and large manufacturers have voluntarily taken steps to improve security, steps that they deem adequate. There are serious questions about these measures (an industry insider calls them “window dressing” and a “sorry joke”) — but small chemical firms and plants have not even taken those “window dressing” measures, and have ignored adding safeguards to avoid having to pay for them. “That’s not acceptable,” Chertoff said Monday. “Progress on this has stalled for too long.”

The more responsible members of the chemical industry and their lobbyists have now concluded that the charade of “voluntary, industry-developed” security measures has run its course. These more responsible members now understand that they face two choices: Either have strict safety measures imposed on them by Congress, or remove the pretense that such measures are unnecessary and cooperate in writing them. Thus we now have Chris VandenHeuvel, a spokesman for the American Chemistry Council, an association with about 2,000 large chemical manufacturers,