Principles for Congressional Action on Chemical Security

Report Homeland Security

Principles for Congressional Action on Chemical Security

March 31, 2006 4 min read Download Report
Jim Carafano
Vice President, Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute
James Jay Carafano is a leading expert in national security and foreign policy challenges.

Since 9/11, Congress has struggled to pass legis­lation to limit the danger from terrorist attacks that exploit the country's chemical infrastructure (e.g., manufacturing and storage facilities and the pipe­lines, trucks, and rail cars that transport chemicals). A law is needed, but Congress needs to remember that chemicals are an integral part of American life. Try­ing to "childproof" the United States against every conceivable vulnerability that terrorists could exploit in the chemical infrastruc­ture would be both impossible and counterpro­ductive. Common-sense legislation that focuses on catastrophic threats is warranted. Otherwise, the government should focus its efforts on finding and stopping terrorist groups rather than hamstringing industries that are integral to the U.S. economy.

Getting Realistic About the Threat. Since chemicals are everywhere, the opportunities for terrorists are almost infinite. Tanker trucks, rail cars, ships, pipelines, barrels of poisons carried in trucks, other hazardous materials, and chemical manufacturing and storage facilities are all poten­tial weapons in the hands of a terrorist. In addition to striking industrial entities, small-scale attacks could use an arsenal of contaminants and toxins that are available to virtually anyone or "secured" in areas with little or no security. Fuels, pesticides, and solvents can all be used as poisons and con­taminants. In fact, terrorist groups overseas are showing a growing tendency to use readily avail­able materials to conduct strikes. Such a major al-Qaeda attack was recently foiled in Jordan.

However, there are good rea­sons not to treat all threats equally.

The U.S. frequently deals with events similar to the consequences of a low-level terrorist attack. America's chemical safety record is not bad, but transportation corri­dors are still the scenes of numerous hazardous material incidents-in some cases, up to 40 per­cent of the accidents recorded in individual states. Indeed, chemical accidents, fires, and spills-many causing death and property dam­age-are hardly an unknown occurrence any­where in the United States. Many happen near densely populated areas. A study of chemical releases in New York over a five-year period found that more than half were near residences. Seventy-five percent occurred within one-quar­ter mile of a household. Chemical accidents throughout the United States have caused signif­icant damage. From 1986 to 1999, releases from pipelines caused an average of 23 fatalities, 113 injuries, and $68 million in damage per year. Responders routinely deal with such hazardous-material incidents.

In many cases, open-air chemical attacks, unless they involve truly massive amounts of material, are a poor choice for terrorists.Achieving the right environmental conditions for a lethal attack against a large open-area tar­get is difficult. In high temperatures, the chem­icals will evaporate. In the cold, they will condense and fall to the ground. High winds will disperse chemicals rapidly. Complex, urban terrain can also significantly alter the dis­persal pattern of chemical agents. These unpre­dictable factors make such attacks less attractive to terrorists.

What the Federal Government Should Worry About. Some potential threats need attention. In 1984, a chemical release from a pesticide factory in a suburb of Bhopal, India, sickened 200,000 people and killed 2,500. This accident demon­strates the potential effects of a deliberate attack. An Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) survey of 15,000 chemical facilities found that in a worst-case scenario, a toxic chemical release could affect an average of 40,247 people.

Worrying about every worst-case scenario is probably not realistic, especially since most of them are highly improbable, but caution is war­ranted in some cases. There are likely a few hun­dred facilities in the United States where a widespread release might have truly catastrophic results. These should be the focus of legislation.

Getting Realistic About Security. The U.S. needs legislation that requires the private sector to implement reasonable measures to reduce the like­lihood of catastrophic chemical disasters. The leg­islation should:

Establish requirements only for critical chemi­cal infrastructure of national significance where a disaster might cause catastrophic damage. The rest of the industry should continue to fol­low voluntary guidelines.

Create performance-based requirements for the chemical infrastructure modeled on the requirements for maritime infrastructure insti­tuted by the Maritime Transportation and Secu­rity Act. Appropriate measures would include requiring vulnerability assessments, security plans, and security officers but would allow the private sector to determine the best way to implement its security.

Call for plans to address access control, perim­eter security, and security of critical areas.

Require periodic testing of security and response plans.

Require the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to approve and periodically audit vul­nerability assessments and security plans.

Task the DHS with establishing training stan­dards for security officers and requiring back­ground checks for key security personnel.

Establish penalties for noncompliance.

Direct the EPA to establish national standards for the transport of hazardous materials (HAZMAT). The EPA should specify which haz­ardous materials and what amounts are highly dangerous. The requirement for background checks for all HAZMAT transporters should be eliminated. Instead, background checks should be required only for individuals transporting highly dangerous materials.

Require the DHS to coordinate chemical secu­rity polices with the EPA and the Department of Transportation.

Conclusion. It is long past time for a common-sense law on chemical security. It is inconceivable to think that the United States might well mark the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks without hav­ing addressed this vital issue. It is time for Con­gress to act responsibly.

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow for National Security and Homeland Security in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.


Jim Carafano
James Carafano

Vice President, Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute