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March 18, 2002
Volume 80, Number 11
CENEAR 80 11 p. 8
ISSN 0009-2347
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Justice sued over delay in assessing terrorist threat to chemical companies


Litigation seeking to force the Department of Justice to conduct a long-delayed assessment of chemical companies' vulnerability to terrorist attacks was filed last week by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

VULNERABLE? Until required risk assessment is done, extent of danger isn't clear.
The lawsuit by the environmental group joins requests from members of Congress and the American Chemistry Council (ACC) that Justice issue the assessment.

Under a 1999 law supported by the department and ACC, Justice was required to assess the industry's vulnerability to terrorist attacks and determine the mitigating steps that should be taken. An interim report was due in August 2000 and a final assessment is required by August 2002.

Nothing has been released, and it appears unlikely that Justice can meet the final date. Department officials would not comment on the suit or the reason for the delay.

"Attorney General [John] Ashcroft says he's concerned about homeland security, but his department is a year-and-a-half late on providing essential information about chemical plant vulnerability," says Rena Steinzor, an NRDC attorney and a law professor on sabbatical from the University of Maryland.

Although passed more than a year before Sept. 11, 2001, the law grew from terrorism fears. A part of it also restricted public access to accident scenarios in industry-prepared risk management plans. The scenarios, Justice and ACC argued, could become targeting guides for terrorists.

The scenarios show the stakes could be large. An examination by C&EN found that more than 2 million people could be injured or killed in a "worst case" accident or attack at large plants in Texas and New Jersey, for instance.

Members of Congress are concerned about the assessment, and leadership of both parties on the House Energy & Commerce Committee have asked the General Accounting Office to examine the delay and the general issue of chemical facility vulnerability to terrorists.

ACC President Frederick L. Webber has also urged Justice to conduct the assessment in Senate testimony and letters to the President. Webber has asked Congress to wait until the assessment is complete before considering legislation.

A methodology to evaluate the terrorist threat and to improve security at chemical plants was developed by Sandia National Laboratories and was delivered to Justice late last year. It has been field-tested at Dow Chemical and DuPont plants. Justice officials had promised to deliver the methodology to Congress last December, but it remains bottled up.

It is a tool sought by chemical companies, says Chris VandenHeuvel, an ACC spokesman, who adds that it will be a key element in an ACC-proposed program requiring companies to conduct security evaluations.

Steinzor responds: "We are told industry is making all kinds of voluntary efforts, but no one has shared details with Congress or the public. Secrecy will not assuage anybody's concerns.

"ACC is on record testifying that they need the assessment, and we are going to get it for them," she adds.

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