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Chemical Plant Security — Safety Must Not Be Compromised

Across New Jersey there are eight chemical facilities that if disrupted could release toxic gases harming more than one million residents. Nationwide, 123 facilities of this magnitude exist, reported the Environmental Protection Agency. While these numbers represent worst-case scenarios, such findings are far too disturbing for anyone to simply ignore and not take action.

Report after report has indicated the vulnerability of chemical facilities as well as the possibility of terrorists using chemical sites against communities at-large. And why are such toxic plants considered potential terrorist targets? Chemical facilities are not mandated to assess their vulnerabilities nor does any government entity have the power to set basic security guidelines and procedures.

In January 2004, the White House released a statement that the Department of Homeland Security “visited several hundred facilities in high-threat urban areas.” Even if the Department made suggested improvements, the chemical facility could simply ignore any and all recommendations. Also, “visiting several hundred facilities” is not adequate when there are more than 7,000 chemical sites, each of which could harm up to 10,000 civilians if ruptured.

Last month, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group released an alarming report on chemical companies failure to protect the public. The American Chemistry Council (ACC), the industries largest oversight committee, implemented the Responsible Care program in 1988 to improve chemical safety throughout the country. The study found that chemical accidents actually increased following 9-11 at ACC facilities. The report concluded that “the voluntary precautions of Responsible Care are not enough to protect Americans from accidental chemical releases or the possibility of terrorist attacks.”

Security lapses in this day and age are unacceptable. All levels of government – local to federal – must continue to communicate and improve our security systems. The fact is that these chemical plants reside in our own backyards.

Recent news reports from national and local media outlets list a chemical plant in Middlesex County as one of the top terrorist targets on the eastern seaboard due to the large quantities of hazardous materials located on site. The conclusion has been made that in the event of a chemical discharge at the plant, nearly 1 million residents within a 15-mile radius of the site would be affected by the toxic discharge.

In the wake of September 11th, and along with our state’s dense population and proximity to New York City, securing chemical facilities must be a priority. Suburban towns are not immune from such terrorist attacks. Taking a precautionary step to improve security will make all of our communities safer and our minds more secure.

To address this concern, I have introduced legislation to strengthen the security of chemical plants throughout our state, specifically to combat possible terrorist or criminal attacks.

Senate Bill 588 would require chemical facilities covered by the Toxic Catastrophe Prevention Act to conduct a full assessment of their infrastructure. In conjunction with local law enforcement and first-responders, the facility would be required to produce prevention, preparedness, and response proposals.

The proposed plans would include suggestions for safer design and maintenance of the chemical facility, and ensure the plant is using safe, up-to-date technology. Lastly, the plan must outline security measures to eliminate or minimize the possibility of a hazardous substance release. Upon completion, each facility must submit their plans to the Department of Environmental Protection for review and approval.

Stricter standards must be demanded from all chemical facilities throughout New Jersey and the nation. Senate Bill 588 would create a much-needed watchdog over the chemical industry, increase safety throughout our state, and keep a constant check on the vulnerabilities of chemical plants. I urge my colleagues and the Administration to support this legislation. Safety for our residents must not be compromised.

Senator Buono represents the 18th legislative district, which includes parts of Middlesex County. She is Chairwoman of the Senate Wagering, Tourism and Historic Preservation Committee, and serves on the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee and the Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee.