Marine Security of Hazardous Chemical Cargo


Publication Date: August 2005

Publisher: Library of Congress. Congressional Research Service


Research Area: Environment; Transportation



Since the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, the nation has been working to improve the security of hazardous chemicals transportation. Marine shipments of hazardous chemical cargo may be attractive terrorist targets because of their large volume and inherent toxicity or flammability. Anecdotal evidence and international events suggest that terrorists may have both the desire and capability to attack such shipments in U.S. waters. Building on existing legislation, Congress is analyzing the security of hazardous chemical marine shipments and deciding whether to strengthen related federal security efforts. H.R. 2651, for example, would increase penalties for criminal or terrorist activities around ports and marine vessels. S. 1052 includes provisions to increase general port security, including foreign port security.

Drawing on marine commerce data from the Army Corps of Engineers (ACE), CRS has analyzed marine shipments of acutely toxic or combustible chemicals as defined under Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations. According to this analysis, over 100,000 marine shipments (54 million tons) of chemicals potentially capable of causing mass casualties (injuries or deaths) among the general public passed through U.S. waters in 2003. These chemical shipments accounted for 2% of U.S. marine cargo tonnage and were shipped through 113 U.S. ports. The top 30 ports handled 95% of this hazardous chemical tonnage. Most marine shipments of hazardous chemicals are much larger than such shipments on land; they would be of sufficient volume, on average, to require an off-site risk management plan under EPA rules if the same quantity of chemical was stored at a chemical plant.

The Maritime Transportation Security Act (MTSA, P.L. 107-295) and the International Ship and Port Facility Security Code give the Coast Guard far-ranging authority over the security of hazardous marine shipping. The agency has developed port security plans addressing how to deploy federal, state, and local resources to prevent terrorist attacks. Under the MTSA, the Coast Guard has assessed the overall vulnerability of marine vessels, their potential to transport terrorists or terror materials, and their use as potential weapons. The Coast Guard has employed these assessments to augment marine assets security and develop new maritime security standards.

As federal oversight of hazardous chemical marine security continues to evolve, Congress may raise questions concerning terrorism risk uncertainty and efforts by federal agencies and the private sector to rigorously evaluate that risk. Congress may assess whether responsible federal agencies and private sector entities have in place sufficient resources and effective measures to secure hazardous chemical marine cargo from terrorist attack. Congress may also evaluate the emergency response capabilities of coastal communities exposed to chemical shipping hazards. Determining how hazardous chemical marine security fits together with other homeland security priorities to achieve common security goals could be an oversight challenge for the 109th Congress.

This report will be updated as events warrant.