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Senator Jon Corzine (D, N.J.) says he may offer his "Chemical Security Act" (S. 1602) this week as an amendment to the homeland-security bill. Introduced last fall, S. 1602 would place the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in charge of issues that affect security at public and private industrial facilities. Unfortunately this "security" bill could undermine public safety by publicizing sensitive information about vulnerabilities at the nation's chemical plants and by leading to the phase-out of vital, lifesaving chemicals.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />
The original version of the legislation included a dangerous "right-to-know" provision mandating that the EPA make public chemical-plant vulnerability assessments (which detail risks associated with potential terrorist attacks) and security plans for addressing their vulnerabilities. That information could assist terrorists who might want to attack our critical infrastructure.
A recent poll conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that 69 percent of those polled believe the government should do whatever necessary to keep such information out of the hands of terrorists — even if that deprives the public of information it wants.
Because of such concerns, Senator Christopher Bond (R., Mo.) offered, and the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee passed, an amendment to the Corzine bill to prevent disclosure of this information. It won't be surprising, however, if Corzine or his colleagues attempt to strip the Bond language out of the bill during floor or conference-committee consideration. Corzine is a strong advocate for making this type of information widely available, and he recently criticized President Bush when the administration called for related security protections.
On a more fundamental level, one must question whether it is wise to enlarge the EPA's security role given the agency's miserable security record. In 1999, Congress directed the EPA to release sensitive information collected about industrial facilities in a way that minimizes security risks. The EPA then published the vast majority of this data on the Internet. After September 11, the agency pulled this information from its website. But so-called right-to-know advocates had downloaded and posted much of this data on their websites, where it remains today, and the EPA continues to make it all available in federal libraries.
The EPA has also demonstrated ineptitude in managing the information that it is supposed to keep secure. The EPA inspector general (IG) reported in 1996 that it discovered six cases in which intruders hacked into the agency's private computer records. The IG further noted: "It is likely that the number of attacks is much greater." Despite warnings, problems persisted. In February 2000, the EPA temporarily shut down its entire site after General Accounting Office workers were able to hack into the agency's allegedly secure pages.
Senator James Inhofe (R., Okla.) apparently recognizes the inherent problem of putting the EPA in charge. He offered an amendment to the Corzine bill in committee that would shift responsibility of reviewing vulnerability assessments of chemical plants from the EPA and Homeland Security to a third party.
Inhofe withdrew this other amendment when bill sponsors promised to work with GOP senators to address these concerns before the bill reached the floor. But, as GOP senators from the committee noted in letter to colleagues last week, they may wind up offering the Inhofe amendments on the floor. Apparently, bill sponsors are less willing to compromise now that they have passed the bill in committee.
Bill supporters are not likely to remedy the bill's security pitfalls because that would undermine the real purpose of their legislation. This bill is designed to serve a radical environmental agenda that targets chemicals by enabling the EPA to regulate them out of existence.
The bill is a newly packaged, and more heavy-handed, version of legislation offered and rejected in past Congresses. One such measure, offered by former New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg, called for "source reduction" — i.e., the reduction and elimination chemicals. Environmentalists called for such policies in the name of "pollution prevention." Today, S. 1602 couches the policy in security terms so that its sponsors can pass these discarded ideas under the guise of terrorism prevention.
S. 1602 would push plants to switch to "inherently safer technology," a term which the EPA would largely define. The EPA will likely be pressured by Greenpeace and similar groups to define "inherently safer" as "chlorine free" or "chemical free."
Yet chemicals are critical to protecting our quality of life — and phasing them out would be dangerous. Chlorine, for example, saves millions of lives every year. Chlorine doesn't only kill pathogens in our drinking water; we use it to make 85 percent of our pharmaceuticals, to disinfect our hospitals, and even to kill bacteria on our produce.
Residents in Peru learned about the importance of chlorine in 1991. Scientific literature cites inadequate chlorination as a key contributor in a cholera epidemic that started in Peru and spread throughout the hemisphere, leading to 533,000 cases of cholera and 4,700 deaths.
Lawmakers should not be fooled about the real intentions behind S. 1602. Giving the EPA the authority to regulate chemicals out of existence doesn't have anything to do with security. But it could seriously undermine security by providing information to the enemy, while at the same time imperiling public health as vital chemicals become some of its casualties.