By Jack Kaskey
June 12, 2012

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency must close “gaping holes” in chemical-plant security that put millions of Americans at risk, former administrator Christine Todd Whitman said.

The agency should use existing laws to bolster its ability to prevent an accidental release of chemicals, particularly poison gas, said Whitman, a Republican who ran the agency during the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Factories and oil refineries should be required to identify ways to reduce hazards in the event of an accident or attack, she said on a call today hosted by environmental group Greenpeace USA.

President George W. Bush quashed her agency’s proposals to tighten chemical security through existing laws or new legislation because of industry opposition, said Whitman, 65, who resigned her position in 2003. Unlike the prior president, the Obama administration is “willing to move on these things,” Whitman said.

“Here is a gaping hole in our security,” she said. “I cannot get my mind around why we haven’t seen some action when the consequences of something happening at a chemical facility are just so potentially devastating.”

Cost-effective alternatives to high-risk chemicals are widely available, Whitman said, citing Clorox Co. (CLX)’s decision in 2009 to change how it makes bleach in the U.S. by eliminating the use of chlorine gas.

Chemical Releases

Stacy Kika, a spokeswoman for the EPA, didn’t immediately respond to an e-mail and phone call seeking comment.

A 2006 law gave chemical-safety oversight to the Department of Homeland Security, exempting thousands of factories, oil refineries and water treatment plants, and bars the department from mandating security measures, Whitman said.

“The idea that the current law protecting chemical facilities against a terrorist attack is weak is a bad reading of the law,” said Christine Sanchez, a spokeswoman for the Washington-based Society of Chemical Manufacturers & Affiliates. “The law in question requires these facilities to implement measurable security standards by a specified time or face closure.”

An EPA list shows where major chemical releases would seriously injure or kill more than 1 million people if they couldn’t evacuate in time, said Michael Wright, director of health, safety and environment for United Steelworkers, which represents workers in chemical plants and oil refineries.

“How do you evacuate in time from a place like Houston or Philadelphia or a major city,” Wright said on the call. “Regulation is going to save the industry.”

Whitman sent EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson an April 3 letter urging her to use existing regulations to improve chemical-plant safety. The letter hasn’t gotten a “formal” response, said Whitman, who also served as New Jersey governor and is now president of the Whitman Strategy Group, a Princeton, New Jersey-based environmental consultant.

The odds of EPA action prior to the November election are “very slight,” she said.