December 3rd marked the 25th anniversary of the worst industrial disaster in history. On that date in 1984, a tank at a UCIL pesticide plant in Bhopal, India discharged a toxic cloud of gas into the atmosphere, immediately killing 8,000 people and sickening 500,000. Another 25,000 people died soon afterwards from long-term exposure to the toxic methyl isocyanatae. Some victims were blinded, their eyes having burst out of their sockets; others’ lungs had melted upon contact with the toxic gas. Survivors today still suffer from ailments associated with exposure to the gas, such as chaotic menstrual cycles and searing headaches. Others have given birth to physically deformed children.
Although speculation still exists over whether the Bhopal Disaster was caused by accident or foul play, the incident illustrates the dangerous risk an insecure chemical plant poses to the public. However, this is not an Indian or a third-world problem. In the US, more than 15,000 chemical plants and other facilities store large amounts of hazardous materials at their sites. In New Jersey - the most densely populated state with a huge petrochemical industry - one chemical company’s 180,000 pounds of sulfur dioxide could form a toxic cloud that would threaten 12 million residents and cause them to suffer a fate like those did at Bhopal. Some experts worry that jihadist extremists might transform these facilities into weapons of mass destruction the same way that 9/11 hijackers used commercial airliners as missiles to attack Americans.
Besides massive death and physical damage, such an attack would cripple the economy by disrupting the country's rail lines, oil storage tanks and refineries, pipelines, air traffic, communications networks and highway systems. It would cost millions of dollars in cleanup efforts, insurance, and recovery. Emergency patients and trauma victims would overwhelm the healthcare system.
So what is Congress doing to protect chemical sites from terrorist attack? Not much. While interim regulation exists, there is no sweeping permanent legislation that mandates national safety standards at chemical facilities. Nor are trucks, ships, or railway cars equipped with GPS tracking devices in case terrorists attack or hijack one of them. For years companies have blocked legislation to boost security in order to save costs. Their efforts, along with politicians’ failure to enact permanent chemical safety standards, place millions of Americans in danger.
In the absence of any security legislation, the chemical lobby has instead created Responsible Care as an alternative to government regulation. Responsible Care is a voluntary program designed by chemical companies to implement industry-wide safety policies while also preserving profits. However, roughly half of all chemical plants under Responsible Care do not participate in the program at all.
I urge Congress to immediately develop and implement safety standards. The first step would be to pass the Chemical and Water Security Act of 2009.This bill would create uniform measures that all facilities would be required to follow if they stored hazardous materials above legally established levels. Moreover, it also requires that chemical companies switch to using Inherently Safer Technology (IST) if the DHS deems they pose enough of a threat to nearby communities. IST refers to modifications in chemical manufacturing to reduce the potential for a toxic chemical release by substituting dangerous chemicals with safer ones at chemical plants.
Despite these benefits, it seems unlikely that President Obama will pressure Congress to pass this bill given all that’s on its plate right now. While juggling healthcare reform, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a massive financial overhaul, Obama has little political capital to tackle other initiatives like industrial safety. For now security at these facilities will continue to remain on the backburner.
Today the US faces a difficult challenge in balancing offensive and defensive national security strategies. To a certain extent, former President Bush’s plan to wage war in Iraq and Afghanistan to avoid fighting terrorists at home was valid because it shields American citizens from the brunt of violence. However, it is dangerous for the US to believe that an aggressive offense in the War on Terror is sufficient to eliminate the risk of an attack on a chemical facility. Any methodology to protect American lives should not preclude a strong defense. The US must take precautionary measures to prevent terrorists from converting one of its chemical plants into an American Bhopal. Only after the federal government enacts permanent legislation regulating chemical security, performing site inspections, and exposing vulnerabilities at our nation’s industrial facilities will Americans truly be safe in this Age of Terror.
Isaac Lara is pursuing his Bachelors Degree in Political Science at Columbia University.
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