According to the Environmental Protection Agency, there are at least 15,000 facilities across the country that use, manufacture, or store large quantities of hazardous chemicals. A study released last month by the Government Accountability Office found that there is no comprehensive federal approach to chemical facility security. The Department of Homeland Security has identified 297 chemical facilities where a toxic release could potentially affect 50,000 or more people.
So are the nation’s chemical facilities more vulnerable to terrorist attacks? That question was among several a Senate committee attempted to find answers to yesterday in a special hearing chaired by Susan Collins (R-Maine). The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee held the hearing to examine the security of America’s chemical plants and their vulnerability to terrorist attacks.
“To us, these facilities are vital parts of our economy that create jobs and improve lives. To our enemies, they are weapons waiting to be used against an unsuspecting population,” said Collins. “Nothing will ever diminish the loss we experienced on September 11th, but the loss from a chemical attack could be even greater, both in terms of the loss of life and the economic impact.”
Collins pointed out that a chemical attack could either be caused by a harmful release of chemicals from a facility or the theft of chemicals from a facility for use by a terrorist. According to a recent report by the Congressional Research Service, during the 1990s both international and domestic terrorists attempted many times to cause the release of chemicals from manufacturing or storage facilities. The potential impact of such an attack is exemplified by the 1984 poisonous gas leak in Bhopal, India. Within a few hours of the leak, thousands of people died and, overtime, hundreds of thousands suffered.
Federal regulations have been enacted to help prevent and mitigate the accidental release of hazardous chemicals, but the regulations are not designed to secure facilities against a terrorist attack.
“Our hearing today was an important first step in laying the foundation for a national strategy addressing chemical security,” said Collins. "Based on the testimony we received today, it appears that federal legislation is needed to better secure our nation’s chemical facilities, and to better prepare in case of a successful terrorist attack. I plan to hold further hearings so that the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee can hear from additional experts in the field and interested parties in order to determine what the solution must entail.”