WASHINGTON – The free ride is almost over for U.S. chemical plants that have failed to strengthen protection against terrorists or accidental leaks, says the nation's homeland security chief.
Plants that resist costly security measures can no longer expect to be "free riders" among the 15,000 privately operated chemical facilities, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff warns.
"They're counting on the fact that the industry in general has a good level of investment, and they figure they'll hide among the leaves and essentially freeload on this security work done by others," says Chertoff, who is outlining new steps for safeguards in a speech Tuesday.
Counterterror experts put the chemical industry at the top of the list of likely terror targets. Congressional investigators have revealed spotty results in how well the chemical industry is prepared to respond in the event of an attack.
The chemical industry generally has resisted federal regulation, and large manufacturers have voluntarily taken steps to improve security that they deem adequate. But small chemical firms and plants have largely ignored adding safeguards to avoid having to pay for them.
"That's not acceptable," Chertoff said Monday. "Progress on this has stalled for too long."
Homeland Security "wants and deserves authority to set federal standards for chemical security, and then enforce those standards," said Chris VandenHeuvel, a spokesman for the American Chemistry Council, which represents large chemical manufacturers. "Four and a half years after 9/11, they still don't have that."
Legislation is pending in the Senate to authorize Homeland Security to shut down facilities that do not comply with minimum safety standards. The bill by Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., would largely let the chemical industry draw up its own security plans for the federal government to approve or reject.
Chertoff has not endorsed the Senate plan, but he is expected to outline elements that he said would need to be in acceptable legislation. Congressional staffers said it likely would not encourage facilities to substitute safe substances for hazardous chemicals, as environmentalists have demanded.
Without that provision, "there isn't any security that would be good enough," said Rick Hind of Greenpeace. "A small plane or a high powered weapon would bypass any gate or fence."