The Long ViewTell us something we don't know

Published 17 January 2006

Cato the Elder ended every speech (no matter what the topic) with “Carthage delenda est” - “Carthage must be destroyed.” We have not quite reached the same level of persistence, but we have insisted that the irresponsibility of the chemical industry and its friends in Congress in resisting any meaningful security measures had to come to an end. Security experts agree that short of a direct nuclear attack on an urban center, the greatest risk for a mass-casualty catastrophic event comes from the 15,000 chemical plants in the United States, many of them near large urban centers, many of them producing and storing deadly chemicals, and all of them free of meaningful security standards with which they have to comply. Until last month the industry, its phalanx of lobbyists, and its Congressional supporters managed to resist the imposition of safety standards, arguing that the industry should be allowed to police itself. The notion of the chemical industry policing itself was a fiction — “farce” would be a better word here — and it would have been laughable had the subject not been so serious. This sorry fiction is now coming to an end thanks to Senators Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Joseph Liberman (D-Connecticut), and many other lawmakers, who reached the conclusion that there was a lack of proportion between, on the one hand, a preoccupation with scissors and box cutters on board planes, and, on the other hand, the apathy toward the safety standards in chemical plants. Nineteen terrorists with box cutters managed to kill nearly 3,000 people on 9/11. A single chemical event near a city will kill ten to fifty times that number.

The Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) is an independent federal agency charged with investigating chemical accidents. As is the case with many appointees in this administration, its chairwoman, Carolyn Merritt, comes from the industry she is in charge of regulating (she has worked for thirty years in the chemical industry). CQ conducted an interview with her on the nexus between safety and security, pending Collins’ and Liberman’s chemical plant security legislation. Here are a couple of quotes from Merritt:

The issue is that you do have some companies who may not have the best safety culture who are really not going to do much of anything unless it’s specifically required, and those are the companies that really pose a pretty substantial risk.

you’ve got some companies, however — and a lot of those are ones we’ve investigated because they’ve had accidents — who aren’t going to do it unless there’s a law that says they have to. And even if there’s a law, they’re not going to do it unless someone forces them to do it.

Ms. Merritt: Tell us something we don’t know.

-read Carolyn Merritt’s CQ interview (sub. req.)