Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Bush Administration Issues Chemical Plant Security Proposal: Industry Likes It

The Department of Homeland Security has issued a proposed regulation to prevent terrorist attacks on chemical plants. Comments on the proposal are due February 7 and the new rules must go into effect by April 7. The new rules sound good at first glance:
DuPont Co., Dow Chemical Co. and other chemical companies will have to submit to government inspections of their plants' security under proposed regulations issued today by the U.S. Homeland Security Department.

Under the new rules, chemical plants considered to be high- risk must assess their vulnerabilities and provide security plans to the government. Manufacturers could be fined as much as $25,000 a day or, in the worst case, closed down for non- compliance.
Although the chemical industry applauds the Bush administration's proposal, the new proposals have come under considerable criticism
Under the rules issued Friday by the Homeland Security Department, chemical plants at high risk of terrorist attack will largely determine for themselves the level of protection they think is needed.

Nothing in the rules suggests that the plants must adopt specific security measures. A concrete barrier blocking access to toxic chemicals? A switch to safer chemicals if economically feasible? Even a chainlink fence? There is nothing in the rules requiring the chemical industry to invest in security measures or to adhere to strict standards. Instead, the nation's chemical companies will tell the government how they think the plants should be protected. And if the government rejects their security proposals, the chemical plants can appeal.
Even Republican Senator Susan Collins had problems with the proposal:
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who is stepping down as head of the Senate Homeland Security Committee.

Collins, who co-wrote the legislation calling for the rules with Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., the committee's incoming chairman, said the department was going too far in some areas, despite having gained much-needed authority to regulate security at chemical facilities and to shut down those that are noncompliant.

The rules "appear to go beyond what Congress authorized" by the department assigning itself authority to pre-empt the legal authority of states and courts and creating other ways "to shield itself from legitimate judicial scrutiny of its own actions."
As Collins notes, DHS is now able to pre-empt state chemical plant security laws, such as New Jersey's which requires chemical plants to take measures to reduce their vulnerability to catastrophes resulting from terrorist attacks. The New Jersey law also requires 43 (of the state's 140 plants) using the most hazardous chemicals to review the potential for adopting inherently safer technologies.

So, can we trust chemical companies to ensure their own security. As with most voluntary programs, you have some who do a good job and some who don't. Given the cost cutting, maintenance cutbacks and otherwise sorry performance of petroleum giant BP over the past couple of years, the whole thing makes me a bit nervous.

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