America's Chemical Plants Are a Threat to Our National Security

By Larry Cohen and Philip D. Radford

The recent presidential debates missed a major threat that looms over our cities: the thousands of chemical plants, many of which are in or near our biggest cities, process tons of deadly toxins.  In the event of an accident, terrorist attack or a natural disaster such as Hurricane Sandy, millions could be at risk of illness or even death.  On October 11thSecretary of Defense Leon Panetta issued a chilling warning saying that these same chemical plants and other sectors are vulnerable to cyber attacks, “The collective result of these kinds of attacks could be a cyber Pearl Harbor.”

In the wake of September 11th, eleven years ago, the nation’s chemical facilities commanded the attention of both parties. People such as Tom Ridge and Christine Whitman identified and gave voice to this problem from inside the Department of Homeland Security and the Environmental Protection Agency. Chemical facilities near the nation’s capitol transitioned from deadly chemicals to safer alternatives. Bills were drafted to ensure that the millions of Americans who live in the shadow of a chemical plant would never be exposed to harm.

But the toxic money of the chemical lobby and their allies in Congress, including the Republican Vice-Presidential nominee Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI), opposed promising homeland security legislation (H.R. 2868) and even scuttled a 2002 EPA plan to prevent chemical disasters at high risk chemical plants.  Now, over a decade later, these plants still pose a threat to us, in major cities and small towns, every single day.

Imagine the worst. You and your family are living near a chemical facility. Actually, maybe you don’t even know that for sure—you’ve driven past it a few times on the highway but you’ve never thought about what happens within its walls. It processes dangerous chemicals—maybe chlorine gas. One in three Americans lives in the shadow of one of these facilities, spread out across the country.  In fact, the “vulnerability zones” of these plants sometimes stretch so many miles that you might not even know about them. The way the chemicals are stored means that an accident or an attack could release a cloud of poisonous gas that could kill you and your family in minutes. These facilities are both environmental and security risks—the U.S. Army Surgeon General estimated that an attack on just one U.S. chemical plant could kill or injure up to 2.4 million people.

Now, there are tested, affordable solutions. In 2009, Clorox voluntarily announced the conversion of their plants to safer processes, and they have now completed that transition. Yet despite how feasible it is to make these plants safer, the industry as a whole has demonstrated a gross failure to act.

It’s time to get serious about chemical plant security.  The safety of our communities is only one of many issues tied up by arcane Senate Rules and the toxic influence of corporate money in politics.   However, in this instance we can act.  Instead of waiting for grid-locked Congress to act, President Obama and the EPA should use the Clean Air Act to safeguard people working and living down wind of our nation’s highest risk chemical plants.   Environmental and labor organizations stand behind this common sense proposal. It’s also smart politics, and it would have the support of anyone who’s concerned about protecting the safety and security of their city, their job and the environment.

Larry Cohen is the President of the Communications Workers of America and Philip D. Radford is the Executive Director of Greenpeace USA