Tuesday, May 19, 2009

EPA vs Security

It has come to my attention that there have been questions about some disparaging comments I made about the Environmental Protection Agency in one of yesterday’s blogs. In discussing upcoming chemical security legislation where EPA will become responsible for chemical security at water treatment facilities I made the comment that this would “continue the non-existent EPA interest in security at water treatment facilities”.

I hope that there was no ambiguity about my disdain for the EPA’s attention to security issues. Of course their role in the government is not primarily to deal with security matters, it is to deal with environmental issues. But, everyone in today’s government should have some basic respect for security matters; everyone it seems except EPA.

Last week I ran across a very interesting article on ABC4.com (out of Salt Lake City, UT) about an abandoned chemical facility that the EPA has taken responsibility for. The Cook Slurry Company was a well known local manufacturer of liquid explosives for the mining industry. It specialized in explosive slurries of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil. The EPA became involved when it became known that the abandoned facility still contained hazardous chemicals including ammonium nitrate and fuel oil in separate tanks.

According to the article the EPA has yet to confirm the contents of a 20,000 gal tank that appears to contain one of the explosive slurries. While the particular chemicals may be more distressing than normal in this case, it is not unusual for EPA to become responsible for the supervision of the clean-up of such a facility. They would typically come in and inspect the facility to ensure that there are no actual or impending leaks that would endanger the local environment. They then would sit on the facility while they tried to track down responsible parties to pay for the clean-up. Again, lacking an imminent danger to the environment, the clean-up might not start for years while the legal requirements were worked out.

What distresses me in this case is not the delay in tracking down the responsible parties, but rather the description of the security measures put into place to protect what is potentially the most desirable terrorist weapon short of an active nuclear weapon. It is weaponized ammonium nitrate in a pumpable form waiting to be loaded into any convenient form of transportation. This is a massive vehicle borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) or two waiting to be loaded. This would be a weapon capable of taking out a city block.

If there were ever a chemical facility that was a potential terrorist theft target, this is the place. The article describes the security measures this way: “The EPA has taken keys to the property, double-locked gates, posted caution signs and is warning neighbors who live as close as half a mile from the plant.”

Yes, those are security precautions to be proud of. I don’t suggest that any high-risk chemical facility try to base their site security plan on such complex procedures. Yes, Chairman Waxman and his committee staff should rest assured that this is the agency that they intend to allow to continue to supervise the security at high-risk water treatment facilities; the treatment facilities that make up the bulk of the chemical facilities on the CAP Chemical Security 101 list. After all, jurisdictional issues are much more important than security.

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