Chemical Plant Insecurity

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Published May 09, 2003

| FoxNews.com

Environmental extremists are exploiting the Sept. 11 attacks in their latest attempt to destroy the chemical industry. Sen. John Corzine (search), D-N.J., is aiding and abetting the eco-scoundrels under the guise of improving homeland security.

The battleground is the debate over the security of chemical facilities, a controversy stoked by the Sept. 11 attacks. The Environmental Protection Agency (search) claims there are 123 chemical facilities (manufacturers, users and storage sites) where terrorist attacks could kill, in worst-case scenarios, more than 1 million people at each site. Death tolls of up to 100,000 are alleged for another 700 facilities.

Sen. James Inhofe (search), R-Okla., introduced a bill this week that would require chemical facilities to assess their vulnerability and send those assessments to the Department of Homeland Security (search). Companies not complying would face stiff penalties. Plans deemed inadequate would be rejected.

A rival bill introduced by Corzine and supported by Greenpeace and other green groups would empower bureaucrats at the EPA to require every chemical facility to consider "inherently safer technologies" — that is, technologies other than chemicals — and mandate their use where "practical."

In sum, Inhofe wants to ensure chemical facilities are secure while Corzine and the eco-scoundrels want to make sure there are no more chemicals at chemical facilities — a regressive goal that would harm public health, reduce the quality of our lives and wreak economic havoc.

What should be debunked first, however, are the EPA's disaster scenarios. They aren't "worst-case" — they're pure fantasy.

In developing the scenarios, the EPA made a number of unrealistic assumptions. The agency, for example, pretended wind would blow in a 360 degree-radius from the site of a chemical release — that is, in all directions at the same time.

The EPA also pretended that the topography of heavily populated areas is flat — no buildings, trees, mountains or other barriers to drifting chemicals — and that chemical facilities have no capabilities for preventing or mitigating releases.

None of these assumptions are true, much less their confluence. The EPA's worst-case scenarios are worthless as policy-making tools.

Their only use, it seems, is to terrorize the public —  and isn't that part of what we're fighting in the first place?

The primary chemical targeted by Corzine and the eco-scoundrels seems to be chlorine. It's the example they spotlight while hyperventilating about chemical facility security.

Chlorine is vital to our public health and to a multitude of industrial processes and consumer products. That's precisely why the anti-business, anti-consumer — and just plain anti-mankind — eco-scoundrels have targeted it since the late 1980s.

Greenpeace's anti-chlorine slogan used to be "Chlorine-free by '93." But the anti-chlorine campaign never made much progress — not only because it's just plain silly considering chlorine's incalculable value to society but also because of a public health tragedy.

During the 1980s, the EPA was bent on linking virtually every chemical with cancer, including chlorine. The agency labeled chlorine as a "probable" cancer-causing agent based on laboratory animal studies. No credible studies of human populations linked chlorine with cancer, however.

In response to the EPA's "probable" classification, the government of Peru stopped using chlorine to disinfect drinking water supplies. Disaster ensued.

An epidemic of cholera erupted in Peru in the early 1990s. Cholera spread quickly through unchlorinated drinking water supplies, killing 10,000 and sickening about 1 million.

Corzine and friends now seem willing to risk such tragedy here — especially ironic as chlorinated drinking water is one of our best defenses against a terrorist attack on water supplies.

The mere presence of chlorine isn't likely to make a facility a terrorist target anyway.

Chlorine gas is heavier than air and, if released, would remain low, hug the ground, and disperse quickly. Because it's visible, it's easily avoided. Liquid chlorine is likely to take the form of "ice" before dissipating as gas. Chlorine released via explosion would rise with the heat of the resulting fire and disperse harmlessly in the atmosphere.

The U.S. chemical industry has produced more than a billion tons of chlorine in the past 80 years. Not a single chlorine release within a facility has resulted in a single fatality outside a facility's property line.

That's not to say that a terrorist attack couldn't cause some harm. Chemical facilities certainly need to be prepared for the possibility.

But being prepared doesn't mean we should stop using chemicals. Terrorism hasn't stopped us from flying airplanes, working in skyscrapers or opening our mail.

But to get chemical plant security right, it seems that we'll first have to disinfect a debate already contaminated by bad facts and bad intentions.

Steven Milloy is the publisher of JunkScience.com, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and the author of Junk Science Judo: Self-defense Against Health Scares and Scams (Cato Institute, 2001).

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