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Chemical Insecurity

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More than two months before 9/11, President Bush was warned that al Qaeda was plotting an attack within the United States. He failed to act. President Obama knows all too well that chemical plants represent one of the country's biggest security vulnerabilities. But the question remains: will he learn from his predecessor's mistake?

In a July 29th speech at the Council on Foreign Relations, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, described the risk. "We may be better prepared as a nation than we were on 9/11," she said. "But we are nowhere near as prepared as we need to be...a key piece of this is securing our nation's critical infrastructure...These are commercial facilities, chemical plants, emergency services..."

Three years ago, as a member of the Senate, Barack Obama understood these vulnerabilities and the risks that communities near chemical plants face. Ignoring intense pressure from the chemical industry, he led efforts in Congress to protect people working and living near these facilities. "We cannot allow chemical industry lobbyists to dictate the terms of this debate," he urged his colleagues.

Unfortunately, the chemical industry prevailed and Congress rejected comprehensive legislation that would eliminate these risks and instead passed a temporary but fatally flawed law. That law actually prohibits the government from requiring the use of safer alternatives to dangerous chemicals. Although this law expires in October, it will be extended for one year to give Congress and the President time to make things right. The next step for Congress is in September when the House Energy and Commerce Committee expects to vote on a bill that is nearly identical to those authored by President Obama in the Senate.

The real test for President Obama is now. Unlike his leadership on health care, the president has been deafeningly silent on an issue that he and Vice President Biden championed in the Senate. This same "I'll sit it out during the season and maybe break a sweat in the last minutes of the finals" approach to legislation is dangerously similar to his approach to global warming legislation. That strategy resulted in coal and oil lobbyists hijacking the process and undermining the president's promises for clean energy jobs, world leadership, and meaningfully reducing global warming pollution. Will President Obama replay his global warming misstep with chemical security legislation?

No one doubts the magnitude of the risks. As President Obama once said, "these plants are stationary weapons of mass destruction spread all across the country." Chemical plants that store and use large quantities of poison gases in populated areas are especially big risks. According to industry's own reports to the Environmental Protection Agency, more than 100 million Americans live in "vulnerability" zones surrounding just 300 chemical plants. A catastrophic release of a gas like chlorine would form a toxic cloud or plume that would be hazardous for up to 20 miles downwind. According to a U.S. Naval Research Lab report, an attack at just one of these plants could put 100,000 people at risk of death or injury within the first 30 minutes of the incident.

Since Sept. 11th, scores of organizations representing a broad range of interests, including the Steelworkers, United Auto Workers, Teamsters, Physicians for Social Responsibility, Sierra Club, U.S. Public Interest Research Group, and Greenpeace have been pushed for stronger security standards at the country's chemical facilities.

While in the Senate, both President Obama and Vice President Biden authored, spoke out for and voted for several bills that would have ensured the use of safer chemical processes. In a 2006 floor statement introducing one of his bills Senator Obama said, "by employing safer technologies, we can reduce the attractiveness of chemical plants as a target... Each one of these methods reduces the danger that chemical plants pose to our communities and makes them less appealing targets for terrorists."

A growing number within the industry agree. Last year, the Association of American Railroads, which is the largest shipper of poison gases and is very concerned about its liability, issued a statement saying, "It's time for the big chemical companies to do their part to help protect America. They should stop manufacturing dangerous chemicals when safer substitutes are available. And if they won't do it, Congress should do it for them."

But, time and again since the 9/11 attacks, the chemical industry -- led by giants Dow and DuPont -- has shamelessly killed attempts to improve chemical security. In 2008 alone, the industry dispatched at least 169 lobbyists to kill comprehensive legislation.

The industry finds any requirement to use safer alternatives objectionable. They insist on the right to use any chemical or poison gas they deem best -- despite the risk to people working, living and going to school in the vicinity of their plants. The cost of converting these plants is relatively small. A survey of the 287 chemical plants that voluntarily converted to safer alternatives since 1999 found that 87 percent did it for less than a million dollars and one-third a reported a savings. As a result, more than 38 million Americans are no longer at risk from those plants.

In June, Democratic leaders in the House introduced legislation to require high risk chemical plants to assess safer alternatives. It would also conditionally require the highest risk plants to implement the safest and most cost-effective processes where feasible. When the bill was voted on in the House Homeland Security Committee, Republicans offered and won four amendments on behalf of the chemical industry to limit or prevent the use of safer chemical processes. As the Energy and Commerce Committee prepares to take up the bill in September, similar attacks on the bill are expected. The ranking Republican on Energy and Commerce, Representative Joe Barton (R-TX), has long opposed this legislation. In 2003 he told National Journal, "I don't see a burning need to legislate."

Eight years after the worst terrorist attack on American soil in history, our most vulnerable targets remain at risk. Simple, inexpensive, and common sense changes, like substituting or reducing the amount of lethal gases stored on-site, would protect millions of people from harm. As Senator, Barack Obama took on the chemical industry to protect our health and security. We need him to take the same stand as President and tell Congress to pass the strongest chemical security legislation possible this year. As he said in the Senate, "We cannot allow our security to be hijacked by corporate interests."

For a video of President Barack Obama arguing passionately for stronger chemical security legislation as a Senator and other key information on the issue, go here.

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