Security rules for chemicals are absurd

Writer and humorist P.J. O'Rourke once said, “Giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys.”<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />

Actually, it's much worse since excessive federal power hits us all. And in these days of terrorist fears, federal power seems to be more difficult to control than teenage boys.

U.S. Sen. Susan M. Collins, R.-Maine, appears to be taking on that challenge, fighting a tough battle to reign in those who advocate using “national security” as an excuse to extend federal controls into the manufacturing process. As the chairwoman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, she is working on legislation to address risks of terrorist attacks on the nation's chemical plants.

Her approach diverges from that of Sen. Jon Corzine, D: N.J. He proposed policies to phase out “inherently safer technology,” which would give regulators authority to essentially ban or reduce politically unpopular chemicals. Corzine's idea has become law in <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />New Jersey, where Corzine is the governor-elect.

The Collins approach to manage chemical use rather than eliminate it is much wiser. After all, many products are valuable because they are “toxic” or “inherently dangerous.” Indeed, the toxic properties of pesticides and disinfectants are what make these products valuable in the war against deadly pathogens. Collins' draft bill also would preempt faulty state laws on the issue overriding provisions in the New Jersey law that seek to reduce or eliminate chemicals. Hopefully, Collins will succeed, but it won't be easy as she is trying to produce a bipartisan bill with U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D.-Conn., who has indicated that he favors the Corzine approach.

In addition, activist hype will be tough to counter. In particular, anti-chemical activists and government regulators are generating fear about chemicals by using government mandated “worst case scenario” data. This data was generated under a 1990 amendment to the

Clean Air Act, which mandated that chemical plants detail what would happen under worst case scenario of a catastrophic, accidental chemical release. The law then directed the Environmental Protection Agency to make these stories public. Advocates of this 1990 law knew that it would generate lots of scary stories that they could use to advance their calls for federal regulation, which is exactly what they are now doing.

Activists and bureaucrats cite an EPA study that asserts that there, are 123 industrial plants in the United States that, if attacked, could each release enough chemicals to harm a million or more people. Similarly, the Department of Homeland Security claims that there are 300 plants that could each produce more than 50,000 casualties if attacked.

Yet, these studies are based on the fictitious worst-case scenarios that assume every possible chemical container would be breached, releasing the maximum amount of chemicals, under the worst possible wind conditions. They further assume that all safety and mitigation measures at the plant would fail, and no one would evacuate from the surrounding communities.

Such calculations say nothing about actual risks, which is why it makes no sense to use them. If we applied this logic to airlines, it would demand phasing out or reducing use of airplanes based on the claim that under the worst-case scenario, terrorists could hijack and crash all the world's largest jets, filled to capacity, into the largest and most populated buildings at the most vulnerable spots. It would also assume that no one could evacuate the buildings or the surrounding areas.

Of course, the scenario is ludicrous; even the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, as bad as they were, did not meet these criteria. We don't use this type of argument to prevent airline travel; why do we apply it to chemical use?