By Christine Todd Whitman
The New York Times
August 29, 2012

SINCE Sept. 11, 2001, the American government, under two presidents, has taken unprecedented steps to ensure the safety of its citizens. Unfortunately, more than a decade later, a major flaw in our national security remains, leaving millions of Americans at risk. It’s a flaw that policy makers have known about for years but not yet done enough to fix.

Hundreds of chemical plants and other facilities maintain large stockpiles of dangerous substances and are in or near major American cities like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, as well as many smaller but no less important towns. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, a deliberate release of these chemicals at just one of these plants could threaten the health and lives of hundreds of thousands of people.

In the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks, there was bipartisan support for addressing the vulnerabilities posed by these chemicals. After all, even small chemical accidents involving poison gas can result in the evacuation of an entire community. As the head of the E.P.A. at the time, I knew what could happen, if a terrorist were to target a chlorine gas facility, to the hundreds of thousands of people living downwind. This knowledge spurred the agency to take action.

We considered using existing authority in the Clean Air Act to reduce the vulnerability of chemical facilities to acts of terrorism, primarily by requiring facilities to evaluate the use of safer chemicals and processes. After considerable internal discussion, however, we decided that the best way forward was to enact legislation that would give the E.P.A. additional authority to do so. Unfortunately, and much to my frustration, after a long, multiagency effort, the White House declined to endorse a draft bill, and Congress did not act on its own.

This has now become a 10-year battle. Today, Congress is hopelessly gridlocked on extending the inadequate homeland security appropriations statute that currently regulates the industry.

And yet I am encouraged, because the E.P.A., under its current administrator, Lisa P. Jackson, is once again seriously considering addressing chemical facility security. In March, the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council urged the agency to “use its authority under the 1990 Clean Air Act … to reduce or eliminate these catastrophic risks.” This is the right thing to do, and it is a step that the E.P.A. could take right now. All the agency needs is the support from President Obama to use its Clean Air Act authority.

The conventional wisdom in an election year is that nothing will get done until after the election. I believe, however, that the current administration, which is on record supporting these disaster prevention policies in the context of security legislation, must not wait any longer. Reducing the vulnerability of these facilities to terrorism is not about politics — it’s about public safety.

The current chemical security statute is inadequate to the task. The policy bars the Department of Homeland Security from requiring some specific security measures, like the use of safer chemical processes, and exempts thousands of dangerous chemical facilities, including all water treatment plants and refineries located on navigable waters, from complying with even the weakest security measures. Since 2009, both the E.P.A. and the D.H.S. have been asking Congress for authority to require safer chemical processes and eliminate these wholesale exemptions.

Fortunately, the Clean Air Act does not contain any of those limitations or loopholes. It obligates facilities handling the most dangerous chemicals to prevent catastrophic releases to surrounding communities. This could allow the E.P.A. to require chemical facilities at risk of attack to switch to safer alternatives best suited those individual plants’ needs.

These alternatives are widely available and cost-effective, and some facilities have made these changes already. Soon after 9/11, Washington’s wastewater treatment plant converted from chlorine gas to safer liquid bleach. Several other water treatment plants have switched from sulfur dioxide gas to liquid bleach and sodium bisulfite. Most recently, the Clorox Company converted its facilities in the United States from chlorine gas to liquid bleach as well. In California, several power plants made the transition from ammonia gas to liquid ammonia. Taken together, all of these plants have eliminated risks to millions of Americans. Now we need to promote the use of such safer alternatives nationwide, to eliminate catastrophic risks and make our chemical facilities less attractive terrorist targets.

It would not take an elaborate plot by Al Qaeda to endanger many lives. In the past few years, we have already seen too many accidents, homegrown incidents and numerous warnings from the Department of Homeland Security. We’ve got to draw the line. It’s both good policy and good politics for the Obama administration to act to secure the nation’s chemical plants now.

Christine Todd Whitman, a former governor of New Jersey and head of the Environmental Protection Agency, is a consultant on energy and environmental issues.