Improving Chemical Plant Security

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Hello, this is Senator Barack Obama and today is Wednesday, March 29, 2006.

You know, there has obviously been a lot of talk about homeland security since the tragedy of 9/11. We have recently seen the debate flare up around the issue or ports and the nation of Dubai bidding to take over some of our critical port infrastructure. In this whole discussion, I think that many of you may not be aware of the degree to which we have utterly failed to deal with what may be one of the most significant potential terror threats to this country and that is how we protect our chemical plants across the nation.

The 9/11 Commission focused specifically on the dangers of our chemical plants, how exposed they are. Industrial chemicals such as chlorine, ammonia, phosgene, methyl bromide, hydrochloric and various other acids are routinely stored near cities in multi-ton quantities. These chemicals are extraordinarily hazardous. Several are identical to those that were used as weapons during the First World War. Today they are 111 facilities in the country where a catastrophic chemical release could threaten more than one million people. These plants represent some of the most attractive targets for terrorists looking to cause wide spread death and destruction. Despite this fact, security at our chemical plants is voluntary. It's left to the individual plant owners. While many chemical plant owners have taken steps to beef up security, there are a lot who haven't. We are still hearing reports of chemical plants with lap-dated fences, under-sized guard forces, and unprotected tanks of hazardous chemicals.

Basically these plants are stationary weapons of mass destruction spread all across the country. Their security is light, their facilities are easily entered, and their contents are deadly. Now, five years after 9/11, the federal government has done virtually nothing to secure these chemical plants. It's a travesty that the 9/11 Commission, in looking at what has been done over the last five years gave us basically an "F" when it came to chemical plant security. So what I've done working with Senator Frank Lautenberg from New Jersey, is to introduce legislation that would protect our communities from this potential threat but in a balanced way. There are features in this bill that I think have to be part of any chemical security legislation passed by this Congress, and Congress has to go ahead and actually act on legislation in this area.

So, here are a couple things that the bill does. Number one: it establishes a general duty to improve security at facilities storing threshold amounts of chemicals. What that means is that chemical facilities would have to take steps to improve security including improving barriers, containment, mitigation, safety training, and where possible, use safer technology. That is known as Inherent Safer Technology, or "IST," what that means is essentially, plants should use less toxic chemicals, and employ safer procedures where possible.

Second thing it does is it identifies high priority chemical facilities. It directs the Department of Homeland Security to work with the EPA, the Environmental Protection Agency, as well as state and local agencies to identify those areas that need special attention either because they are close to population centers, the type or amount of chemicals that are involved, their threat to national security and critical infrastructure.

Third thing: it requires high priority facilities to conduct vulnerability assessments and develop and implement response plans. That's something that is not currently done.

Fourth thing it does is it says that if states decide to create laws that are more stringent than the national standard, they are not preempted; states can make decisions that they want even better protection for our chemical plants.

Next, it protects whistle-blowers. It protects employees who report dangerous gaps in security to the Homeland Security Department.

Finally, it protects security information from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act and other state and local disclosure laws, so you don't have chemical plant security measures on the net for terrorists to tap into.

These are some common sense provisions; unfortunately, the chemical lobby is one of the most powerful ones in Washington. It spends more money than just about any other lobby, including the pharmaceutical industry. They have dragged their feet, in terms of wanting to move this issue forward. I understand that there is no company out there that wants to be regulated, companies are generally allergic to any intrusion in their business decisions, but this is something of such great importance that we can't afford to rely solely on voluntary measures.

It's overdue; it's time that we acted. My hope is that the Lautenberg-Obama Chemical Security and Safety Act moves in this Congress and I would urge all of you to contact your legislators to suggest that this is in fact something that you guys strongly support.

I appreciate your time, and I look forward to talking to you next week. Bye bye.