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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Homeland Security

Air Date: Week of

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It promises to be the largest reorganization of the federal government in decades, Congress is trying to finish up work on the new Department of Homeland Security. Living on Earth’s Anna Solomon-Greenbaum reports on the environmental ramifications.


TOOMEY: Welcome to Living On Earth. I’m Diane Toomey, sitting in for Steve Curwood.

RIDGE: The President believes that his administration in this new department needs the freedom to manage.

Tom Ridge, head of the Office of Homeland Security

TOOMEY: That’s Governor Tom Ridge, head of the Office of Homeland Security, and he’s making the case before Congress on why the White House needs the flexibility to hire, fire and transfer workers without the usual constraints imposed by civil service protections. In the coming weeks, that’s what you’ll be hearing most about as legislation to create the new Department of Homeland Security is debated. But there are other concerns about the range and scope of this new government department, Living On Earth’s Anna Solomon-Greenbaum reports. Many of them could affect the environment.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Of the 22 existing federal agencies being drafted into the new Department of Homeland Security, many have an environmental component. Whether it’s protecting it, researching it or restoring it, agencies like the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service play a vital role in the nation’s day-to-day functions. In Congress, some are doubtful these functions can be maintained in a department so focused on national security. Of greatest concern is the Coast Guard, which is being absorbed by the Homeland Security Department in its entirety.

SNOWE: Frankly, we’re going to be keeping a watchful eye on the Coast Guard and this department.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Republican Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine wants to preserve the Coast Guard’s traditional duties, like responding to oil spills and enforcing fishery laws. After 9/11, she points out, fisheries oversight declined as boats were transferred to security details. In the long run, Snowe argues, the Coast Guard must be able to do both jobs, and the provision in the new department promises to safeguard the Coast Guard’s classic functions. But Snowe warns:

SNOWE: If these missions are overlooked and lost in this process, then, clearly, we’re going to have to take concerted action.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: The new department’s power is being questioned on another front, as well. The Bush administration is seeking a special exemption from the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA. It would protect information that companies voluntarily submit about their critical infrastructure from being released to the public, and that information couldn’t be used against the company in civil court. In addition, language in a House version of the bill threatens federal employees who leak such information with up to a year in jail. White House spokesman Gordon Jandreau defends limited access to information as a small, but necessary, security step.

JANDREAU: There needs to be an exemption from FOIA so that the information cannot be used by those who wish to cause us harm, as well as providing those companies with the ability to protect their proprietary information and keep it away from their competitors.

MOULTON: What this essentially does is it starts shifting us from a ‘right to know’ to a ‘need to know’ approach.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Sean Moulton is an analyst at OMB Watch, a public interest group that pushes for greater government accountability. He says his group’s website, which includes nationwide data on everything from hazardous waste sites to chemical spills, frequently relies on FOIA requests. The site gets used by all sorts of people.

MOULTON: They’re a worker and they’re worried about what they might be getting exposed to. We’ve had people access it to find out about areas where they might be moving, what kind of chemical plants are there, what kind of risks they might face, what kind of pollution’s going on there.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: And public access to information, says Moulton, can make companies take the environment more seriously. He points to one EPA program that requires companies to report emissions of toxic chemicals. When the data first came out, he says:

MOULTON: You had environmental groups doing, you know, the worst 50 facilities in the country, ranking the states who has the worst. So suddenly there was a huge spotlight shined on us, and a great deal of pressure mounted on facilities and on companies to start doing something. And very quickly we saw the TRI numbers plummet.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Moulton acknowledges some information, like blueprints for bombs, should be kept out of the public’s reach. But he says FOIA already allows for exemptions based on national security concerns. These kinds of information access questions have grown commonplace in the last year. Can companies be trusted to accurately report information and put public safety first? Democratic Senator Jon Corzine isn’t betting on it. He tells the story of one chemical plant in his home state.

CORZINE: There’s one instance in New Jersey where a local television station has twice entered the grounds, sat on one of the storage tank facilities, and filmed what went on, and was there for over a couple of hours the first time, and an hour the second time without even being challenged why they were there. This was in a situation where there is highly explosive materials. And that’s bothersome.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Corzine says there have been similar incidents across the country. So he’s drafted legislation to put the EPA in charge of strict new security guidelines at 15,000 chemical facilities nationwide. His bill also contains a requirement that companies consider using alternative technologies, including chemicals that are considered safer or less toxic. But Chris VandenHeuvel of the American Chemistry Council calls Corzine’s bill a smokescreen. He says many companies are already taking steps to shore up security since 9/11 and that Corzine’s bill will leave them in the dark about how to proceed.

VANDENHEUVEL: A question may come up that says do you move a tank from the perimeter to 50 feet within inside the perimeter. Well that may be what we decide to do in conjunction with federal security experts as the best thing to do. In 2005, the Environmental Protection Agency may say, well, no, you need to bury that tanker. Well, we just spent $10 million dollars to move it, now you’re saying, spend another 50 to bury it.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: In the end, VandenHeuvel says, Corzine’s bill is less about national security, and more about pleasing environmentalists who want to reign in the chemical industry.

CORZINE: It used to be called Toxics Use Reduction. This is an environmental bill. This is not a security bill.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: But federal oversight of chemical security is not just being touted by green groups. Even the Bush administration, which generally favors incentives over regulations, is considering its own set of rules for the industry. Corporate accountability is just one issue being debated as lawmakers try to define just what a secure nation should look like. Among the questions, whether access to information makes us safer or more vulnerable; whether the people or the government or the corporations will say what is secure and what’s not; and whether national security is compatible with a clean, safe environment. That question is being raised most directly right now by the Department of Defense. The DOD says it needs exemptions from major environmental laws to better train its troops for the war against terrorism. For Living On Earth, I’m Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, in Washington.



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