Chertoff warns treatment plants about chlorine

06/22/07 in Industry News


June 12, 2007, 7:21 PM EDT

WASHINGTON -- Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff yesterday urged operators of water and waste treatment plants to secure chemicals like chlorine from terrorists, although they're not required to do so.

"For those of you who are not subject to the [new chemical security] regulations, I don't want you to breathe a sigh of relief that you're off the hook," Chertoff told industry leaders in a briefing about the nation's first-ever national chemical security rules.

Referring to water treatment plants' use of chlorine -- an ingredient used in an increasing number of truck bombs in Iraq -- Chertoff warned that the consequences of ignoring terror threats was "quite severe" in potential liability as well as lives.

"You're on the hook because you're going to have to do this yourselves because the consequences of ignoring risks. . .will be quite severe," he said.

An estimated 3,000 drinking-water and wastewater treatment plants are listed in EPA documents as keeping more than 2,500 pounds of chlorine gas, according to Paul Orem, author of a report published by the Center for American Progress, a think tank.

Nonetheless, Congress exempted such plants from oversight under the nation's first-ever chemical security regulations, which took effect last week, because they are already regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency. It could not be learned how many operate in New York.

Robert B. Stephan, assistant secretary of homeland security for infrastructure protection, said there was no indication of any terror plot to use chlorine in this country, "but our goal is to stay two or three steps ahead of these guys and so we have to anticipate that someday they may use that tactic here."

Stephan said the department has reached out to plant operators about recommended steps to secure chemicals, given out grants to expand buffer zones and improve surveillance, and distributed real-time intelligence.

He discounted a terror tie-in to recent thefts and attempted thefts of chlorine tanks from water treatment plants in California, reported several months ago by the Chlorine Institute, a trade group of companies that make or distribute chlorine.

"The FBI feels these are related to malicious criminal activity versus terrorism," Stephan said.

Chlorine gas was among the first chemical weapons, employed by both the German and the British armies in World War I. The use of chlorine in terrorist attacks was rare until a spate of recent attacks in Iraq that have killed dozens who have inhaled the poison fumes.

Rick Hind with Greenpeace urged Chertoff to demand that plants adopt safe alternatives to toxic chemicals. "There are alternatives available that would render these plants as safe as dairy farms," he said. "I don't think there's any doubt that the day after a disaster not only the American people, but some of these companies will be clamoring for such a change."

Copyright 2007 Newsday Inc.