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The New York Times Gets Chemical Plant Security Wrong

Why do liberals always assume that the solution to every problem is regulation and yet more regulation? That's the thrust of an editorial in today's New York Times that whines: “Congress still has done nothing to protect Americans from a terrorist attack on chemical plants.” It assumes that Congress has some magical answer to the issue members refuse to employ because of chemical industry lobbying. It also wrongly claims that nothing has been done to protect these plants. Consider the evidence first. All the answers that Congress has considered largely involve growing the federal bureaucracy with needless paperwork and meddling in production processes of which they have no knowledge. Indeed, the chemical plant security issue has mostly been used as an excuse for environmental activists and their allies in Congress to push an environmental agenda to reduce or eliminate the use of chemicals. It's not surprising that Greenpeace—which has advocated banning the chlorine that is necessary to kill dangerous pathogens in our water supply—leads the effort to push for such “security” legislation. For more information on this angle see CEI's paper on the topic. The New York Times has either been fooled by this pretense or it shares Greenpeace's dangerous convictions. Their editorial simply parrots the need to force companies to “replace” dangerous chemicals—based on the naïve assumption the replacement products will necessarily be safer. But would using “alternative” disinfectants that are not as effective at killing cholera, dysentery, and other diseases really be that much safer? Ironically, when Congress has acted on the issue in the 1990s, it took environmental activists' advice that actually increased terrorist risks by publishing sensitive data that terrorists could use to select targets and plan attack strategies. Back then, many environmentalists and others on the left didn't think security was much of a concern when they advocated these laws. On the second point, the New York Times' claim that nothing is being done belies the fact that that Homeland Security has been working with managers at chemical plants and other facilities under existing laws and regulations—which grant more than sufficient power to help shore up security. Indeed, there are laws requiring emergency planning at the state and local levels as well as laws requiring plants to engage in emergency planning. Recent proposals would simply have created a duplicative planning structures rather than use the ones we already have in place. What is the point of that? More regulations to navigate won't necessarily make that process easier and they could easily make it worse—as the bureaucratic and political inertia during Hurricane Katrina so cleared demonstrated. And then there is the dramatic claim in the editorial that exemptions for water treatment facilities in pending legislation mean that “millions of Americans could needlessly be put at risk of an attack on a chlorine tank.” Did the New York Times forget that shortly after the 2001 attacks, Congress passed a security bill to address water treatment plants? Probably not—it seems that no matter how many laws we pass it's never enough for the New York Times and its friends on the left.