Bull's-Eye in Your Backyard: Chemical Plant Security 2010

Friends at Greenpeace asked me to visit Washington this week to meet with some key Senators who will be voting soon on chemical plant security.

While admittedly only one on a list of many potential terrorist targets across this country, chemical plants must be given greater attention since from a terrorist's perspective chemical plants offer a maximum kill rate for a minimal effort. Studies have shown that just one chemical facility can place up to a million people at risk.

The facts illustrate that virtually every major populated area has one or more of the 5,000 most lethal, "high-risk"chemical facilities. Sadly, many of these facilities suffer from lax oversight, poor perimeter security, and vulnerable operating technologies.

Such facilities are open to: aerial attack (a terrorist flying a small, private plane into the facility); cyber-attack (a terrorist logging in and overtaking an operating system from a net café half way around the world); internal attack (a disgruntled employee deciding to push a button); and/or mere human error (BP's Deep Horizon oil spill proves that catastrophic accidents can and do happen).

Short of handing out HAZMAT suits and masks to every individual living within the zone of danger, there are other feasible ways to make such lethal facilities safer. One simple way is to use smart security. Smart security essentially means substituting the lethal variety of a chemical with a non-lethal alternative so that if an accidental release occurs nobody dies. Here's a list of 500+ success stories. Admittedly, using such alternatives will initially create a nominal cost increase to the chemical company but perhaps, more importantly, smart security means no dead people for the surrounding community. Seems like a no-brainer, right?

Nope, it's not, because for some in Washington it remains business as usual.

Indeed, because chemical companies are unwilling to shoulder any unnecessary costs that would adversely affect their precious bottom line, their lobbyists are working overtime this week in Washington to forbid the passage of any meaningful, life-saving legislation. The lobbyists' targets? Susan Collins (R-ME), John McCain (R-AZ), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), George Voinovich (R-OH), Scott Brown (R-MA), Mary Landrieu (D-LA), and Mark Pryor (D-AR). All of these Senators have said they will oppose legislation that can and will save lives should an attack occur at any high-risk chemical facility across the country.

And here's the kicker:

While discussing the status of the legislation during a conference call, I was brainstorming for a hook to get these wayward Senators to pay attention, care, and do the right thing. Lacking the usual props of money and power, I thought about the angle of personal interest because sometimes all it takes to motivate people into action is to touch them personally. After all, the reason why I find myself in the 100-degree heat of Washington this week fighting for better chemical facility security is because my husband was killed on 9/11.

What better way to gain the personal interest of these elected officials than to alert them to the fact that they, too, were in the bull's-eye. So, I questioned whether any large, lethal chemical plants were in Washington DC's backyard.

Guess what? There aren't any. Within 90 days after 9/11, the only facility that posed such a threat to the Capitol was converted to a harmless alternative. And within three years rail cars loaded with these chemical WMD were no longer passing within four blocks of the Capitol.

Funny how mountains can be moved when a Senator's, Congressman's, or President's life is at stake. But what about you and me?

If you think these Senators should care about our lives too, then please pick up the phone and tell them that you want them to support H.R. 2868, the bill that actually passed the House in November, and the companion legislation written by Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), S. 3598 & S. 3599 that will prevent disasters at the highest risk chemical facilities across the U.S. http://www.greenpeace.org/usa/news/senate-introduces-bills-to-pro

Susan Collins (R-ME) 202.224.2523

John McCain (R-AZ) 202.224.2235

Lindsey Graham (R-SC) 202.224.5972

George Voinovich (R-OH) 202.224.3353

Scott Brown (R-MA) 202.224.4543

Mary Landrieu (D-LA) 202.224.4833

Mark Pryor (D-AR) 202.224.2353