Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Controlling the Chemical Threat to America

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Controlling the Chemical Threat to America

Article excerpt

With an executive order from the president, the Environmental Protection Agency could take action right now to address the grave risk of vulnerable chemical plants.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. government, under two presidents, has taken unprecedented steps to ensure the safety of its citizens. Unfortunately, more than a decade later, a major flaw in our national security remains, leaving millions of Americans at risk. It's a flaw that policy makers have known about for years but not yet done enough to fix.

Hundreds of chemical plants and other facilities maintain large stockpiles of dangerous substances and are in or near major American cities, as well as many smaller but no less important towns. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, a deliberate release of these chemicals at just one of these plants could threaten the health and lives of hundreds of thousands of people.

In the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks, there was bipartisan support for addressing the vulnerabilities posed by these chemicals. As the head of the E.P.A. at the time, I knew what could happen, if a terrorist were to target a chlorine gas facility, to the hundreds of thousands of people living downwind. This knowledge spurred the agency to take action.

We considered using existing authority in the Clean Air Act to reduce the vulnerability of chemical facilities to acts of terrorism, primarily by requiring facilities to evaluate the use of safer chemicals and processes. After considerable internal discussion, however, we decided that the best way forward was to enact legislation that would give the E.P.A. additional authority to do so. Unfortunately, and much to my frustration, after a long, multiagency effort, the White House declined to endorse a draft bill, and Congress did not act on its own.

This has now become a 10-year battle. Today, Congress is hopelessly gridlocked on extending the inadequate homeland security appropriations statute that currently regulates the industry.

And yet I am encouraged, because the E.P.A., under its current administrator, Lisa P. Jackson, is once again seriously considering addressing chemical facility security. In March, the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council urged the agency to "use its authority under the 1990 Clean Air Act ... to reduce or eliminate these catastrophic risks." This is the right thing to do, and it is a step that the E.P.A. could take right now. All the agency needs is the support from President Obama to use its Clean Air Act authority. …

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