The Environmental Protection Agency reported in June that about 600 U.S. chemical facilities have vulnerability zones where more than 100,000 people could be affected in the event of a "worst-case" attack, according to a Congressional Research Service report. And about 2,200 other facilities potentially threaten between 10,000 and 100,000 residents. CRS concluded, however, that EPA methodology used for calculating the affected population may understate the potential worst-case consequences of a terrorist attack.
"Because few terrorist attacks have been attempted against chemical facilities in the United States, the risk of death and injury in the near future is estimated to be low, relative to the likelihood of accidents at such facilities or attacks on other targets using conventional weapons," states the report, which was obtained and published by the American Federation of Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy. "For any individual facility, the risk is very small, but risks may be increasing with potentially severe consequences for human health and the environment. Available evidence indicates that many chemical facilities may lack adequate safeguards."
The report outlined options for lawmakers to consider, such as stricter regulations for chemical plant operators or requiring the Homeland Security Department to do more.
"Policymakers face three key issues: how to balance the risks and benefits of public disclosure; how to weigh the relative importance of diverse risks; and whom to hold responsible for achieving results," the report states.
The American Chemistry Council, which represents large chemical manufacturers, reported in July that its members have spent more than $2 billion to improve security at about 2,000 facilities.
The CRS report says the risk of terrorists using chemicals or attacking a chemical facility has been historically low. But the risk appears to be increasing, the report adds.
"Security experts now believe that lack of personal expertise no longer limits chemical weapon use, because there is a tendency for terrorists with similar extreme views to affiliate loosely with others with complementary skills and abilities," the report states. "Moreover, the rising level of education worldwide means that more people have the requisite training in chemical engineering, and the Internet has simplified communications, training and cooperation within geographically dispersed terrorist groups."