It Is Past Time to Shield Country from Terrorist Attacks on Chemical Facilities and Transport Routes

Statement of Joan Claybrook, President of Public Citizen

After Sept. 11, 2001, the District of Columbia and the nation realized how vulnerable we are to terrorist attacks on chemical facilities and chemical transportation routes. As outlined in Public Citizen’s 2004 report, The Bush Administration’s Hostility to Regulation and Ties to Industry Leave America Vulnerable, a strike at one or more of the 15,000 chemical plants across the United States could cause thousands, even millions, of injuries and deaths. Trains and trucks that carry tens of millions of tons of toxic chemicals and other hazardous materials annually on our rails and highways make tempting terrorist targets, and a weapon as simple as the legal, widely available 50-caliber rifle has the potential to inflict serious damage on a train car or truck carrying lethal materials, causing an explosion or derailment.

In response to Sept. 11, the federal government created the Department of Homeland Security and spent billions of dollars on measures that were supposed to shore up the nation’s soft spots.

Instead, as we saw in the handling of Hurricane Katrina, the federal government’s emergency response system is woefully inadequate. Intergovernmental coordination in the hurricane’s aftermath was abysmal, causing needless death and suffering. We have seen similar examples of ineptitude on a smaller scale in the District; when a Cessna flew too close to the Capitol in May, D.C. police were unaware of the deployment of fighter jets, and in March, during a false anthrax scare at a Pentagon mail facility, communication between federal and local officials was extremely poor.

This is particularly troubling because trains carrying chemicals still travel regularly through highly populated areas of the District. A strike on a train could kill tens of thousands of people and put the city in a panic.

Unfortunately, the dangers here highlight a nationwide problem. Cities across the country are similarly vulnerable, and our government has done virtually nothing to prevent such a tragedy, much less prepare to handle an emergency of great magnitude. There still are no plans for rerouting chemical-laden trains around urban areas, and security at chemical plants remains lax. When Richard Clarke, former counter-terrorism chief, warned recently that our infrastructure is still almost as vulnerable as it was on Sept. 11, 2001, he singled out chemical plants as particularly tempting terrorist targets.

It is past time for action. We need not only to require the chemical industry to shift to safer chemicals and processes when possible, but we must protect Americans from a potential chemical catastrophe. Proposals to do this are pending in Congress. H.R. 2237, introduced by Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), would not only boost chemical plant security but would require safer chemicals to eliminate risks in the event of an attack. And S. 1256, introduced by Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), and H.R. 1414, by Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), would both re-route trains carrying hazardous materials to avoid densely populated areas. In addition, the District and states should pass laws providing for strict liability for chemical plant operators and transporters to encourage them to take precautionary measures.

Government officials knew for years about the dangers a hurricane would pose to New Orleans, yet the woefully inadequate response led to tragedy. We have had plenty of warning about the dangers posed by poor security at chemical plants and by chemical transport. We must do all we can to avert disaster.

Note: To view Joan Claybrook’s testimony to the D.C. Council on Oct. 25, 2004click here. 

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