Monday, January 19, 2009

Offsite Consequences

One of the perennial topics in chemical facility security, community right-to-know (RTK) information, is being discussed again in New Jersey. According to an article posted on the NJ Dept of Environmental Protection (NJ-DEP) is proposing a rule that would allow shielding from public exposure ‘off-sit consequence’ reports. This would apparently parallel the US-EPA action of removing this information from web sites after 9-11. Needless to say, this action is being opposed by a number of activist groups. In light of the publication last fall of the Center for American Progress report, Chemical Security 101, this seems like a case of closing the barn door after the horses have escaped. The same information is currently available at EPA reading rooms (the data source for the CAP report). The NJ rules would still allow the on-line publication of chemicals and quantities of chemicals at sites covered by the NJ laws; it would just limit off-site consequence information. This distinction borders on the ludicrous. If the size of potential chemical inventories is available, anyone with a little bit of knowledge can find a variety of tools to calculate off-site consequences. Both the US-EPA and DHS provide on-line calculators to predict off-site consequences of a toxic release. Enter the chemical and the amount on-hand and it will tell you the distance the toxic cloud will spread. Public Consequences Part of the problem here is that the off-site response to a chemical release (either from an accidental release or a terrorist attack) is not the responsibility of the chemical facility. The facility may have a legal liability but it does not have the emergency response responsibility. That falls on local and State governments and they are frequently ill equipped to plan for and manage such a response. And jurisdictional issues frequently cloud the issue further. The current CFATS regulations make the situation even more difficult. In an effort to legitimately protect security information about high-risk chemical facilities the Chemical-terrorism Vulnerability Information rules were established. Unfortunately, these efforts will inevitably lead to many facilities to over-protect information that local communities need to establish realistic emergency response plans. Furthermore, the congressionally mandated inability of DHS to mandate any actions under CFATS past reporting of information to DHS makes it impossible for DHS to require high-risk facilities to coordinate their security plans with emergency response plans of local officials. The EPA emergency planning rules are woefully inadequate and completely un-enforced. Congressional Action Needed With the CFATS re-authorization certainly to come up in this session of Congress, it seems like a good time for Congress to address this short coming. There should be a specific requirement in the reauthorized chemical facility security legislation for coordination between high-risk facilities and local homeland security officials for emergency response planning. This should include requirements for those state and local officials to prepare an emergency response plan for each high-risk facility. That should also include a requirement to communicate that plan to all people that live and work in the area identified by DHS as being at risk for off-site consequences for a successful terrorist attack on that facility. Inevitably that requirement will have to be backed up by Federal training and funds. It is time that we learn to distinguish between legitimate security information and information that the citizens need to know. Certainly what actions the populous is going to be required to take when a local high-risk chemical facility is attacked belongs in the column of RTK. This goes well beyond just knowing the potential hazards; it must include the proper actions to take in the even that that potential is realized.

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