After nearly five years, and billions of dollars spent on post-September 11 measures to beef up security at U.S. ports, borders, public transportation and civil aviation systems, Congress appears ready to address what many believe to be the Achilles heel in our nation's infrastructure: the thousands of privately-owned facilities that make, use or store hazardous chemicals scattered throughout the U.S.
While experts and officials identified chemical plants as prime targets for terrorist plots shortly after the September 11 attacks, legislative proposals for strengthening security around these sites have failed to gel on Capitol Hill ever year since that time, creating a patchwork of voluntary measures as the primary means of ensuring security at chemical facilities. And as one senior U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) official noted in his June 5, 2005 comments before a Senate panel: "While most companies have been eager to cooperate with the department, it has become clear the entirely voluntary efforts of these companies alone will not sufficiently address security for the entire sector."
Since then, Congressional lawmakers have publicly voiced their commitment to moving chemical plant security legislation this year and recent media coverage of their efforts suggests that they actually may follow through.
And, while it is still too early to predict which--if any--of the legislative alternatives that are currently on the table will eventually win out, there does appear to be enough momentum on Capitol Hill to suggest that companies who own or operate chemical facilities will probably be seeing some changes in the relatively near future.
Considering that members of the nonwoven fabrics industry make and use chemicals that could be subjected to these legislative efforts, this article will review the background on this issue and outline some of the possible outcomes.
According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), the U.S. is home to some 15,000 industrial facilities that produce, use or store toxic chemicals that if accidentally released, could pose a significant threat to human health and the environment. These facilities--which include chemical manufacturers, storage and distribution facilities, fertilizer and pesticide facilities, pulp and paper manufacturers, water and wastewater treatment facilities, and more--can be found in all 50 states. And, based on location and the chemicals being used, more than 120 of these sites have the potential to endanger the lives of more than one million people if they were accidentally or purposely compromised. The potential magnitude that an attack on a chemical facility could have, in fact, has led one national security expert to characterize them as a "poor man's atomic bomb." Moreover, credible information gleaned by the U.S. government regarding terrorist plots involving these sites led the Department of Justice to conclude that such an attack represents a clear and present danger to U.S. national security that must be addressed. Yet, even still, all the Congressional action and Presidential directives issued in the wake of the September 11 attacks failed to give DHS explicit authority to develop chemical security regulations, leaving the protection of these facilities to be addressed by industry-adopted voluntary efforts.