WASHINGTON — A spate of deadly chlorine bomb attacks in Iraq is prompting the Bush administration to urge nearly 3,000 municipal water treatment plants in the United States to make sure their chlorine gas is well protected — spotlighting what Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has singled out as a "gap in our system of regulation."
Although some plants have switched to less dangerous methods of disinfecting drinking and waste water, many still add chlorine gas to kill bacteria. The gas can also be used as a chemical weapon. In recent months, Iraqi insurgents have started attaching chlorine cylinders to car bombs and roadside explosives to burn people’s lungs, eyes, and skin downwind from a blast.
With chlorine bombs becoming a high-profile weapon of choice for terrorists abroad, officials at the Department of Homeland Security fear that terrorists might try to copy the tactic, making chlorine tanks at water plants, which range from 150-pound cylinders to 90-ton rail tankers, an obvious target for sabotage or theft.
There are 1,700 drinking water facilities and 1,150 waste water plants that still use chlorine, including about 50 in New England that keep at least 2,500 pounds of the chemical on site, according to data from the Environmental Protection Agency . In Massachusetts alone, 22 water plants are currently registered as chlorine users with the EPA.
In a recent speech, Chertoff urged water authorities to pay for whatever fences, cameras, and guards are necessary to "make sure that these dangerous chemicals they have on site are not stolen, because, unfortunately, if you look over to Iraq, you’re going to see these kinds of chemicals wind up in improvised explosive devices."
Chertoff has no power to do anything more than urge vigilance on the part of water treatment plant operators. Although Congress passed a law in October giving his department the power to make sure that most chemical facilities have effective security, lawmakers exempted water treatment plants from the new regulations.
"For those of you who are not subject to regulation, I don’t want you to breathe a sigh of relief like ‘We’re off the hook,’ " Chertoff said. "You’re on the hook, because you’re going to have to do this yourselves until the time comes along that regulatory authority to address these is given to us or to some other agency."
Today , the House Homeland Security Committee will hold its first oversight hearing on chemical security this year, and some watchdog groups are now calling on Congress to revisit its October 2006 chemical security legislation to make it tougher. Among the critics’ chief targets is the exemption for water treatment plants.
"There’s 10 things wrong with the chemical security rules, and I list this one first," said Rick Hind , legislative director of the Greenpeace Toxics Campaign. "The water treatment plants exemption is easiest to understand. Three thousand facilities — wow, that’s a big omission."
But water treatment plant operators say they will oppose any effort to get rid of their exemption. Operators argue that it is unnecessary to have Homeland Security looking over their shoulder because they are already making any necessary upgrades. They also argue that they do not want to pay for any additional fencing and guards that Homeland Security might require.
"If there are regulations that require additional investment in security measures beyond what has been done, I think we would request federal funding for that," said Rebecca West, who is the vice president of the Water Environment Federation and also manages 14 water treatment plants in South Carolina.
Water treatment lobbyists also point out that their facilities are overseen by the EPA. Under the Clean Air Act, plants submit risk-management plans to the EPA. And under the 2002 Bioterrorism Act, drinking water plants were required to certify to the EPA that they had assessed their security vulnerabilities.
But these arguments, which water treatment lobbyists used to help persuade Congress last fall to exempt them from "redundant" new federal regulations, have been heavily criticized by homeland security specialists. They argue that the EPA’s programs are not an adequate substitute for Homeland Security’s regulations when it comes to preventing thefts or sabotage of chlorine tanks.
The EPA’s risk-management program focuses on safe practices for handling chlorine and plans for dealing with any accidental release, not perimeter security. The Bioterrorism Act focused on preventing the poisoning of drinking water, not protecting chlorine cylinders, and it did not cover waste water plants at all.
Critics also point to a recent series of thefts of chlorine canisters from water treatment plants as proof that such facilities cannot be trusted to pay for adequate security on their own.
In April, Arthur Dungan , president of the Chlorine Institute, the research and safety arm of the chlorine industry, sent out a warning to members that someone had stolen three full 150-pound cylinders of chlorine from a water treatment site in California in February and April 2007.
In addition, he wrote, police in two other California counties had reported unsuccessful attempts to steal chlorine from municipal water treatment plants that spring.
After the first theft, police had suspected the thieves may have thought they were taking a different chemical that would be useful in manufacturing drugs. But when it happened again, Dungan wrote, "concerns were heightened" because it was clear they were targeting the chemical.
"The use of chlorine by terrorists in Iraq has heightened all our concerns, and we should be vigilant in doing all we can do to minimize the possibility of unauthorized persons obtaining any type of chlorine container," he wrote, urging operators to report any similar thefts to the FBI and to one another. The letter was later obtained by Congress.
In a phone interview last week, Dungan said the chlorine thefts remained unsolved — and that he learned of a similar theft of at least one chlorine gas cylinder from a Texas water treatment facility in June.
Dungan also said he believed water treatment plants ought to be included in the Department of Homeland Security’s chemical security regulations.
"If you meet the threshold quantities — whether you’re a chemical plant, a grocery store, or whatever — you ought to be covered" by the department’s security rules, Dungan said. "There should not be a blanket exclusion."
But West, of the Water Environment Federation, argued that thefts of chlorine cylinders from plants in California and Texas do not necessarily prove that the industry needs to be regulated by Homeland Security. In general, she said, most plants have done a good job in voluntarily upgrading their fencing and guards on their own.
"I think that just looking at one isolated area is not indicative of whether or not the efforts have been successful," she said.
Representative Edward J. Markey, a Malden Democrat who sits on the Homeland Security Committee, said Congress should require "the highest risk facilities [to] switch to safer processes or chemicals whenever possible" — and to wipe away the exemption to homeland security laws for water treatment plants.
"In light of the use of chlorine as a weapon by terrorists in Iraq and the reported and attempted thefts of chlorine from California water facilities, it is utterly essential that Congress pass comprehensive legislation that requires that all chemical facilities undertake significant security upgrades," Markey said. "No exemptions, no loopholes, and no further delays."