The Long ViewWhere is the outrage? On deadly chemicals and sorry jokes

Published 20 January 2006

Here is something we could have written:

More than four years after 9/11, there have been at least modest improvements in airline security, port security, and border security, but critics say there’s been virtually zero progress in protecting the nation’s chemical plants, some of which remain frighteningly vulnerable to terrorist attack. Now, after years of delay, new legislation is inching its way through Congress, but its fate—and ultimate impact—is still very much an open question.”

The quote is from this week’s issue of U.S. news & World Report. There are more than 15,000 facilities in the United States producing, storing, or using toxic chemicals — oil refineries, water-treatment plants, factories which produce paints and fertilizers, and more. The Congressional Research Service (CRS) found that more than one-hundred of these plants have reported that a worst-case scenario, such as a terrorist attack or a major accident, in any one of them could endanger more than one million people. More than three-hundred facilities reported that if such an event were to occur to them, more than 50,000 would be endangered. “These plants are the equivalent of weapons of mass destruction prepositioned in some of the most congested parts of our country,” says Stephen Flynn, a terrorism expert with the Council on Foreign Relations.

Former Senator Jon Corzine (D-New Jersey; now governor of the state) introduced a bill with meaningful plant regulations six weeks after 9/11, but the Republican majority killed it in committee. In 2002 former DHS secretary Tom Ridge (while still an adviser to President Bush, before he became secretary), and then EPA administrator Christine Todd Whitman, put together an oversight plan for a handful of the riskiest facilities in 2002, but administration officials quashed it. White House documents show that around the same time Ridge and Whitman tried to advance the proposal, chemical industry representatives met with White House adviser Karl Rove to express their disapproval of an expanded EPA role in overseeing their facilities. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the chemical industry and related manufacturers donated more than $27 million