Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Chemical Security in Election Ad

On the last day of the current election cycle, I am going to make a comment on political ads. I have had to wait this long because I have just seen one that contains a significant reference to chemical facility security. This last Saturday, the president of the American Chemistry Council (ACC) and the chairman of the East Harris County Manufacturers Association co-wrote an editorial in the Houston Chronicle. While it did not mention a presidential candidate by name, it was clearly a political endorsement. Personal Disclaimers Before I comment I have to make a few facts clear. I worked in the chemical industry for 16 years. Two of the companies that I worked for were members in good standing of the ACC. Now I am a chemical security gadfly and muckraker (in the original meaning of those terms) and am not personally beholden to the chemical industry. In my younger years I was a politician in training. I worked my first political campaign in 1964 and was a local headquarters stalwart in every statewide and national election between then and 1972 when I joined the Army after Nixon’s re-election. I worked on phone banks and went door-to-door in get-out-the-vote efforts. In 1971 I was one of the first 18 year olds selected to join a major statewide political organization in California. I understand political campaigning. The Editorial Endorsement Empfield and Dooley start out their editorial describing the size and economic importance of the chemical manufacturing industry in Houston, TX and the United States. They lay out an excellent case for undisputed fact that chemical manufacturing is very important to the Houston economy. Then they begin addressing a number of political/economic issues related to the chemical industry. They touch on a number of specific issues including energy policy, rail monopolies and federal regulations. At the end of each issue discussion, they point out the presidential values that they are looking for on that issue. While I have personal opinions on each of these areas, I’ll reserve those opinions for a more appropriate venue. Chemical Security Issue The one issue that they addressed that I do think is appropriate for me to comment on here in this blog is ‘Chemical Plant Security’. So, let’s look at what they had to say on this issue:
“The ACC and our Houston member companies are committed to safeguarding America's chemical facilities. To date, our members have invested more than $6 billion in security enhancements and they led the charge to establish national chemical security regulations. Under those rules, facilities that use or store chemicals must meet specific security obligations and the federal government can shut down facilities that do not comply.”
First let me state that there is certainly a lot of truth in this paragraph. ACC members have publicly committed to chemical facility security as part of that organization’s Responsible Care® program. There have certainly been significant investments made (and the $6 billion figure is probably well documented). Finally, DHS can shut down facilities that ultimately fail to comply with the current CFATS regulations. Much of the rest, however, is only true in a limited sense or is an outright distortion. They Led the Charge There are many environmental, labor and security activists that would vehemently disagree that the ACC and its members “led the charge to establish national chemical security regulations”. The ACC fought a lot of chemical security legislation between 9/11 and October 2006. They argued, with a lot of reason in many cases, that the legislation would severely hamper manufacturing operations. ACC was a moving force behind the establishment of the legislation authorizing the current CFATS regulations. If the wording of the statement in the editorial were changed slightly no one could legitimately protest its accuracy. The more appropriate wording would be ‘… they led the charge to establish the current national chemical security regulations’. Under Those Rules Dooley and Empfield are completely wrong when they state “facilities that use or store chemicals must meet specific security obligations”. First off the current chemical facility security regulations do not apply to anywhere near all of the facilities that ‘use or store chemicals’. Only the facilities that present a high-risk of terrorist attack are covered by the current chemical security regulations. Only some 7,000 facilities out of 32,000+ facilities examined (electronically, not physically, examined) are included in that high-risk category. Those 32,000 were selected for screening because of the significant presence of only 300 some odd very dangerous chemicals. Even that 32,000 number was artificially low because of the large number of facilities that were exempted by the law advanced by the ACC. Secondly, the Department of Homeland Security was specifically prohibited in that ACC led law to specify ‘security obligations’. So, even chemical facilities that do meet the high-risk criteria do not have to ‘meet specific security obligations’. DHS has established 18 risk-based performance standards that high-risk chemical facilities must ‘address’ in their site security plans. But even so, DHS cannot specify how they must be addressed. They Do Not Stand Alone Now, don’t get me wrong, Empfield and Dooley do not deserve to be eviscerated on the field of political half-truths and distortion. They are in good company this election season. Every ad that I have seen (and like most people in this country I have seen way too many) this election season has been riddled with the same type of misleading statements. This is one of the reasons that I decided not to pursue my earlier political ambitions. Politicians of every stripe and interest have concluded that the American people are incapable of listening to an actual discussion of the issues and are completely disinterested in hearing about the details of how their government operates. Until the People disabuse their elected representatives of this belief we will continue to see this type of half-truth and distortion parading as political discourse.

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