By ANDY IGREJAS
Michael Chertoff is an independent and strong-willed public advocate; these qualities will serve him and the country well in his new role as secretary of Homeland Security.
But his resolve will also be tested in the years ahead, as he enters an administration that has already undermined efforts to address a glaring hole in the nation's security -- the vulnerability of our chemical plants.
Soon after Sept. 11, government agencies ranging from the Environmental Protection Agency to the Department of Defense warned that Al-Qaida could use our industrial chemical sites against us. Drawing on data from its accident prevention program, the EPA determined that 15,000 sites use or store hazardous chemicals, and 123 of them could threaten over a million people in the case of an accident or attack. The Army surgeon general estimated that an assault on a chemical plant could endanger more than 2 million lives, the magnitude of which surpasses every terrorist threat besides bio-terrorism.
New Jersey Sen. Jon Corzine -- with industrial areas like Chertoff's native Elizabeth in mind -- immediately introduced legislation to increase security at chemical plants and require facilities to convert to safer materials wherever feasible. Former Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge also called for greater chemical security, developing a plan for federal security standards alongside then-EPA Administrator Christine Whitman.
But before they could announce their proposal, the White House intervened to block it. As the New York Times reported last fall, senior political adviser Karl Rove called Ridge and ordered the plan shelved at the behest of the chemical industry. The administration went on to oppose Corzine's legislation and successfully prevented it from moving.
To this day, there are no federal security standards for America's chemical facilities. The Department of Homeland Security recently assumed complete jurisdiction over chemical plant security, despite its history of siding with industry against any mandatory regulations.
The chemical industry touts its voluntary security programs as adequate, though independent investigations by journalists and the chemical workers union confirm the ongoing vulnerability of hazardous chemical facilities.
This continued risk was exposed during a recent train derailment in South Carolina, where a partial leak in a car carrying chlorine gas killed nine and temporarily turned a community of 5,400 into a ghost town. Chlorine gas tanker cars cross through heavily populated cities every day, and they account for many of the "worst case scenarios" envisioned by the EPA. A partial leak in a single railcar cost nine lives; a terrorist attack on a train or chemical plant could claim far more.
Yet the federal government has neglected the simplest solution to this problem. Much of the chlorine gas used in the United States goes toward sewage treatment, and it can be cheaply replaced with sodium hypochlorite -- essentially liquid bleach. A liquid bleach spill could account for a fish kill, but it would not release a poison gas cloud or threaten human lives.
Recognizing this risk, the Washington sewage plant switched from chlorine gas to the liquid bleach mere weeks after Sept. 11. Corzine's bill and Ridge's original plan would have mandated similar changes across the country, reducing the amount of chlorine gas moving on the rails and parked outside of plant gates. Comparable opportunities exist in other industries, like refining.
Michael Chertoff has the chance to make millions of Americans safer, and his new position requires him to do everything within his power to realize that objective. Ten years ago, as a member of New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission, Chertoff endorsed a proposal for a $100 contribution limit on legislative races. The proposal had little chance of passing, and he could have easily ignored it. Instead, Chertoff put his integrity above politics and supported the measure.
Chertoff will need to summon that independence in his fight to improve our chemical security.
X Igrejas directs the environmental health program at the National Environmental Trust, Washington, D.C.