On 9/11, we were told that nothing would be the same again. But in the Washington money game, where policy is shaped by the highest bidders, nothing has changed. Six months after 9/11, reporter Carl Prine of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review decided to find out how well chemical plants were protected from intruders. Not far from Pittsburgh, at a warehouse in Forward Township owned by Vopak, a leading chemical distributor, he spent more than an hour onsite without being accosted, even climbing atop chemical tanks and rail cars storing highly toxic chlorine. Vopak’s warehouse is one of at least 123 plants nationwide where an accident or attack involving lethal chemicals could endanger more than 1 million people living nearby.
Over the next two months, Prine visited another thirty chemical factories, shippers and warehouses in Baltimore, Chicago and Houston. He found “safeguards so lax that a potential terrorist can easily reach massive tanks of toxins that endanger millions.” Not only could a stranger enter unmolested, workers often gave him directions to the most sensitive valves and control rooms. More than half the plants had “no noticeable [security] cameras, fences or locks at all.” A return investigation found few improvements.
For all the talk about terrorists getting their hands on WMDs overseas, huge stocks of highly dangerous and accessible chemicals are right here. But while nuclear power plants are already subject to tough federal security requirements, there are no mandatory federal security standards for chemical plants. The industry regulates itself.
In October 2001, Senator Jon Corzine introduced the Chemical Security Act. It would have given the Environmental Protection Agency the authority to regulate security at 15,000 chemical facilities around the country. It would also have required them, where “practicable,” to use inherently safer technologies and thus reduce the dangerous chemicals onsite. Corzine’s bill sailed through the Environment and Public Works Committee, at first. But then the American Chemistry Council (ACC) got involved, charging that the bill would lead to “government micromanagement.” Fearful of the agency’s tough reputation, it also opposed giving the EPA authority to oversee security efforts. And it insisted that its self-imposed safety code was adequate, although it was voluntary and barely covered 1,000 plants.
By early September 2002 six key GOP senators–Kit Bond, Mike Crapo, James Inhofe, Bob Smith, Arlen Specter and George Voinovich–had publicly changed their minds about the bill they had earlier voted for in committee, claiming it could “hurt our nation.” They were joined by senators George Allen and Richard Shelby. These eight Republicans are among the top lifetime recipients of chemical-industry cash. Chemical industry contributions soared in October 2002, just as Congressional allies were preventing Corzine’s proposal from being added to pending legislation creating the Department of Homeland Security. “My bill was crushed by the American Chemistry Council,” Corzine says. (George W. Bush has done mighty well by the chemical industry, by the way. Ten people connected to it were “Pioneer” donors in 2000. One, Frederick Webber, was then the president of the ACC. The industry has made Bush its number-one recipient of campaign largesse, giving him around $1.2 million since 1999.)
The killing of the Corzine bill should haunt anyone familiar with how the airline industry stymied efforts to toughen airport security practices in the late 1990s, insisting that self-regulation was best. After TWA Flight 800 crashed in 1996, President Clinton promised to toughen security measures, declaring that all flights entering or leaving the United States would be searched before takeoff. A commission chaired by Vice President Gore called on the Federal Aviation Administration to stop allowing airlines to hire baggage-screening companies based solely on who was the lowest bidder, insisted on criminal background checks for airport employees in secure areas and proposed that all bags be matched to passengers. But the airline lobby blocked the changes. Even now, air-safety measures are being watered down to appease the airline lobby. A provision of the 2003 aviation reauthorization bill mandating security training for flight attendants was deleted in conference by Representative Tom DeLay, at the industry’s behest.
The 9/11 Commission’s final report makes no mention of the need for comprehensive campaign finance reform.