By David Michaels
Here at the Pump Handle, we’ve been trying to follow up some of the issues that Confined Space covered better than anyone else. One of these is chemical plant security. Many chemical plants are filled with explosive or toxic substances, making them appealing targets for terrorists. Congress considered bills to force chemical companies to take meaningful protective measures, but, as Confined Space readers will remember (see here and here for a refresher), these efforts were blocked by the now-deposed Republican leadership of the House and Senate. Instead, a rider giving the chemical industry a pass on most substantive requirements was slipped into a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) appropriations bill. The EPA was cut out of the picture.
DHS has now started its work and folks who live near chemical plants can rest easy. According to spokesperson Russ Knocke (quoted in a terrific article by Bill Walsh in the New Orleans Times-Picayune), DHS has decided not to require “inherently safer technology” because it doesn’t want to tell chemical companies how to operate. Seriously.
“It can become very dangerous very fast when the federal government gets in the business of proscribing to companies how to do business,” Knocke said. “Fines and orders to cease operations are serious consequences. History has proven that if you provide private industry with incentives, it will step up to the plate.”
What about that business of providing first responders information about the chemicals they are likely to encounter when they enter a factory that is in flames or has been blown up?
[Knocke] said it’s “entirely possible” that first-responders will have a “general understanding of the nature of the possibly harmful facilities” in their communities, but declined to say how much they would know.
Senator Joseph Lieberman is rightfully upset. According to the article, Lieberman has written to DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff complaining that
the rules needlessly pre-empt even more stringent state and local safety laws and keep from the public details of what is stored at local plants. Under the proposed rules, details about what’s inside the gates would be disseminated on a “need to know” basis, giving the secretary wide latitude about whom to inform.
The combined effect appears to create a virtual black box within which DHS would have sole knowledge and discretion regarding the program with no real opportunity for any outside accountability, be it by Congress or the public,” Lieberman wrote. “This is not a strategy for good security or good government.”
This is one more program that the new Congress ought to revisit, with authority for chemical plant security transferred to EPA. If it was not clear before, DHS has now shown us why it isn’t the right agency for the job.
David Michaels heads the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy (SKAPP) and is Professor and Associate Chairman in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health, the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services.