Friday, October 24, 2003

Chemical Plant Security: More Compromises

Environment and Public Works Chairman James Inhofe, R-Okla., and Sen. Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I., have reached an agreement on a compromise chemical plant security bill. I have written before (here and here and here) about the chemical plant security debate and the competing bills sponsored by Senator Jon Corzine (D-NJ) and Senator Inhofe. Chafee, a moderate Republican, has been opposing Inhofe's bill until this agreement was reached.

As you will recall, Senator Jon Corzine's chemical security bill called for regulations that, among other things, would have required chemical facilities to move toward "inherently safer" production -- for example substituting safer chemicals for potentially hazardous ones and reducing the quantity of hazardous chemicals kept in the plant.

But regulations are a major no-no for this Administration, so Senator Inhofe came up with a more voluntary approach that would have required chemical companies to simply submit vulnerability or security-improvement plans to Homeland Security, but not require companies to consider using alternatives to current chemicals and practices.

Corzine's bill was passed unanimously in Committee last, but later dropped by Senate leadership when the American Chemistry Council launched a multi-million dollar campaign against it.

To win votes from holdouts such as Sen. Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I., Inhofe agreed that chemical plant operators should have to make what he called "a good-faith effort" to at least consider using safer technologies and less toxic chemicals.

The bill would also make chemical plants submit annual status reports on their vulnerability to the Homeland Security Department.

Corzine was not impressed, arguing that the "compromise" between Chafee and Inhofe "would not require firms operating plants near population centers to replace volatile chemicals with safer compounds -- when and where possible and cost-effective. "

"The legislation approved today continues to provide far too many loopholes," Corzine said. "The bill fails to require review and approval of industry security plans, which may end up on a shelf, collecting dust. It also fails to require implementation of safer technologies, even in cases when they are cost-effective and their use could save many lives."
In addition, Corzine blasted the Inhofe bill for imposing criminal penalties on federal employees who publicly disclose a company's security plans but calling only for civil penalties if companies violate the law.

Corzine did not say he would oppose the bill, but rather claimed he would work to improve it during debate on the Senate floor.

The bad news is that the committee is expect to pass the bill. The good news is that, even if the committee and the full Senate pass the bill, the House is unlikely to act this year.