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Fine-Tuning Chemical Rules

July 28, 2002

Industrial plants can kill. Leaks occasionally lead to neighborhood disease clusters. (Remember Erin Brockovich's crusade in the California desert town of Hinkley?) Renegade chemical plumes can choke to death hundreds or even thousands of people in surrounding homes. (Remember the methyl isocyanate disaster in Bhopal, India?)

So who should know about the chemicals these plants contain? The government? The public? Osama bin Laden?

These days, sadly, such questions resonate with a bigger one: Where do we draw the lines between security and liberty, now that large-scale terrorism has reached the United States?

Last week, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee approved a bill by Sens. Jon Corzine (D-N.J.) and James M. Jeffords (I-Vt.) to guard the nation against chemical terrorism. People don't normally think of plants that, say, treat drinking water, clean waste water or refrigerate food as national security risks. They should.

California has 155 such plants, each storing more than 100,000 pounds of chemicals such as chlorine, hydrochloric acid or ammonia that the Environmental Protection Agency has listed as extremely hazardous.

Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge recently reminded Congress that the EPA had identified 123 plants in the country that, in a serious explosion, could harm at least a million nearby residents. An additional 1,000 plants could each endanger 100,000 people if toxic fumes were to waft across the landscape.

The chemical security bill, now in the hands of the full Senate, would identify the plants that posed the greatest danger, require them to assess their vulnerability to terrorist attack using a step-by-step protocol devised by the American Chemical Council, compel them to hire guards or in other ways improve security and require that a basic outline of their risk assessments be made public.

This last bit could spell the bill's doom. The industry, which has voluntarily been conducting security assessments and making improvements since January, has always been loath to tell people much about the concoctions cooking at its plants. And some lawmakers, including Rep. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (R-La.), are all too eager to use the umbrella rationale of terrorist threat to justify further erosion of the public's right to know.

On Thursday, Corzine accepted a reasonable amendment to his bill, requiring plants to publicly disclose general information about which toxic chemicals they store and how they plan to protect them. It also allows them to keep private specific details about, for example, which gate a cadre of extremists might use to breach security.

This sort of sensible fine-tuning of the balance between security imperatives and democratic freedoms--in this case, a plant's interest in avoiding sabotage versus people's right to the information that would let them lobby for environmental safeguards--has become more complex and critical in the age of terrorism.

To make sure this well-balanced bill isn't killed or gutted, we encourage Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) to append it, as is, to the homeland security legislation Congress is expected to pass next month.

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