Monday, April 17, 2006

Chemical Plant Security: The Plot Sickens

It's all so confusing, this chemical plant security stuff, trying to ensure that terrorists don't do us in with our own home-grown weapons of mass destruction at the chemical plant or refinery down the street

But then again, not. It's really the same old story.

In the right-wing corner, we have Secretary of Homeland (in)Security, Michael Chertoff, saying that we don't need no stinkin' enforceable standards or inspections when we can just trust industry to do the right thing, and you can throw this crazy, tree-hugging enviro "inherently safer technology" crapola in the river, along with the EPA/Greenpeace wackos it rode in on, and in case any of you states out there think you have a better idea, fuggedabout that too. Big government knows best. And big government says we're just going to trust big industry. End of story.

In the center corner is Senator Susan Collins (R-ME), with her "bi-partisan" bill (Joe Lieberman D?-CT and a few other Dems) that, at this point wants to set some standards, but doesn't like this green "inherently safer" stuff either (although her bill -- S.2145 -- will leave it to the discretion of Homeland Security whether there's any role for inherently safer technologies.), and maybe she'll let the states set up their own programs, if everyone is civil about it.

Finally, the cavalry has arrived in the persons of Senators Barack Obama (D-IL), Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) Robert Menendez (D-NJ), who have introduced a bill, The Chemical Security and Safety Act of 2006 (S 2486), that would require plants to develop a comprehensive security plan that is required to use inherently safer technologies (as well as plant security), when possible. It would have a role (although not the lead role) for EPA and provide for inspections to determine if the plants were actually doing what their security plan says they're supposed to do. It contains extensive language for employee (and union) participation in developing and implementing the plans, whistleblower protections and allows states to set up their own programs as well.

Lautenberg and Menendez held a press conference yesterday where they criticized the administration's approach:
"The president wants a weak, industry-favored approach that pre-empts our state's chemical safety and security laws. We say no way."
A little background for those of you who are just tuning in for the first time....

Around four and a half years ago, a bunch of terrorists flew airliners into the World Trade Center and Pentagon, killing thousands and leading some of our nation's politicians and security experts to wonder what would happen if terrorists attacked some of our country's chemical plant or refineries where a major release of some unpleasant substances could kill or injure tens of thousands of people. New Jersey Senator (now Governor) Jon Corzine quickly introduced a chemical plant security bill that called for chemical plants to do a hazard assessment and consider the introduction of inherently safer technologies.

Everyone thought this was a great idea, and it passed out of committee unanimously -- that means all of the Democrats and all of the Republicans voted for it. So far, so good -- until the American Chemistry Council woke up and invested several million dollars into reversing the vote, arguing that it would drive American companies out of business, but assuring us that chemical plants were already taking care of the problem, thank you very much, and we don't need to worry our pretty little heads, and we could just go on about our business, move along, nothing to see here.

This was all well and fine until journalists and television reporters across the country decided to verify the ACC's assurances by seeing if it would be possible to sneak into a chemical plant as if they were terrorists. Turns out, not only was it possible to sneak into every plant they tried, it was almost impossible to get caught and thrown out.

Oops. OK, the ACC said, we've decided that actually a chemical security law wouldn't be such a bad thing, and luckily for America, we already have a great program called "Responsible Care" which will take care of the problem. Just require everyone to adopt our guidelines, keep EPA away from the game, and none of this pinko inherently safer crap, and we're responsible enough to do the right thing, so we don't need any inspections either. Everyone happy?

Apparently not. In fact, the good citizens of he state of New Jersey were so unhappy that they passed their own law that required plants using the most hazardous chemicals to review their potential for adopting inherently safer technologies.

Hmm, time for "bipartisan" compromise. Enter Senator Collins with her bipartisan bill. But that wasn't quite good enough for the ACC because it didn't pre-empt rogue states like New Jersey. Which means we really, really need a good administration bill that will pre-empt the states, put an end to the enviro-socialist-inherently-safer-technology garbage, and get this thing over with once and for all.

OK, that's the story in a nutshell. Now, let's review the main issues one more time

Inherently Safer Technologies vs. Guns, Guards and Gates: This is not an either/or. It's a "both."

Although the ACC and the Wall St. Journal equate inherently safer technologies with costly, quasi-socialist environmental control of our precious chemical fluids by Greenpeace, the idea is actually much simpler: using safer chemicals, reducing inventories of highly hazardous chemicals where safer substitutes can't be found, reducing hazardous pressures and temperatures where possible, improving inventory control, and reducing or eliminating storage, transportation, handling, disposal and discharge of highly hazardous substances. It's not pie in the sky. Lots of plants have already done it.

What's the advantage? First, by making plants "inherently" safer, we not only contribute to ensuring our safety against terrorist attacks on our refineries and chemical plants, but these technologies would also protect us from ourselves. Because, as we saw at the Texas City BP Amoco plant last year, we don't need no stinkin' terrrorists to blow up our chemical plants. We're perfectly good at doing it ourselves. That explosion killed 15 workers and injured 170. Happily, there were no significant offsite consequences, although the refinery probably contains enough highly hazardous chemicals to wipe out half of Houston.

The second advantage of inherently safer technologies is that they reduce the target. If there's nothing there to blow up that will kill lots of people, why even bother trying to attack the plant. And if there's no significant target, there's no need for costly security measures.

Chertoff, as we've seen before, doesn't have a clue:
We have to be careful not to move from what is a security-based focus, as part of the type of regulation I'm describing, into one that tries to broaden into achieving environmental ends that are unrelated to security. There is an Environmental Protection Administration. They deal with environmental matters that are distinct from security.
Which is not to say that we don't need the guns, guards and gates. We do. But it's not enough and to the extent we reduce the target, we need fewer costly (and ultimately ineffective) guns, gates and guards. Think about it. How much sense does it make to only commit resources to guard a target (with questionable effectiveness) when in most cases it’s entirely possible to shrink or even remove the target completely?

EPA vs. Homeland Security: This seems like a no-brainer. With its Risk Management Program, EPA clearly knows more about reducing chemical plant hazards than Homeland Security, unless of course you think that chemical plant security is only about guns, guards and gates -- which Chertof and the Wall St Journal and the ACC clearly do. This is how the Wall St Journal characterized Corzine's bill in 2003 which would have given authority to the EPA:
Senator Corzines’ bill is about getting rid of chemicals, period. He’d give half of the responsibilities for coming up with new security regulations to the highly trained, highly motivated anti-al Queda special forces at ---the Environmental Protection Agency.
Judging from the fact that even the Lautenberg-Menendez-Obama bill gives primary authority to Homeland Security (in consultation with EPA), giving responsibility to EPA is probably out of the (political) question.

State Pre-emption: Pre-emption of state laws wasn't really a big issue until New Jersey spoiled the fun. Suddenly it's the main issue keeping chemical industry executives and lobbyists in a cold sweat all night.

I've explained this before. Republicans and the business community are always for federalism and states' rights, until a few states start doing things that they don't like. Then business, faced with rebellion in the states and the prospect of having to comply with 10 or 20 or 50 different state laws, suddenly becomes a big fan of federal regulation -- as long as it's weak and pre-empts stronger state laws. We've seen this process numerous times with workplace safety and environmental regulations.


OK, enough of the issues, what's the politics? Senator George Voinovich (R-OH), who is on Collins' committee, is pressuring her to include language that would pre-empt state laws like New Jersey's. And to get more Republican and administration support for her bill, she may roll over. On the other side, Lieberman, who is also co-sponsoring Collins' bill, is threatening to add language that would force chemical plants to implement safer technologies. Collins as I said, is opposed, as is the Administration.

But the ACC, which is suddenly in a big hurry to get a bill passed, is ready to jump on board with Collins (as long as she makes a few changes). According to ACC President Jack Gerard
“The train is about to leave the station, and we hope that the entire Senate jumps on board. Four and a half years after 9-11 is too long to wait for legislation to secure the chemical sector of our nation’s critical infrastructure.
Too long to wait? And whose fault is that?

And in response to yesterday's Lautenberg-Menendez press conference, Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke warned
"We have been waiting for Congress to pass chemical regulations for three years," Knocke said. "Where we may disagree with some of the issues around the edges, we are eager to work with the House and Senate to pass regulations this year."

Yeah, hurry, quick, before any other states start following New Jersey's wayward path.

Stay tuned. Collins' committee will soon consider the bills, probably next month.

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