Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Itty Bitty Steps Forward On Chemical Plant Security?

The NY Times praises Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) and Joe Lieberman (D-CT) for introducing some decent legislation to tackle the chemical plant security issue. That's the little problem that the Times describes:
If terrorists attacked a chemical plant, the death toll could be enormous. A single breached chlorine tank could, according to the Department of Homeland Security, lead to 17,500 deaths, 10,000 severe injuries and 100,000 hospitalizations. Many chemical plants have shockingly little security to defend against such attacks.
The problem of securing chemical plants from terrorism has allegedly been at the top of the homeland security agenda since 9/11, but after the chemical industry succeeded in crushing the original bill introduced by NJ Senator Jon Corzine, no progress has been made.

The disputed issues were who would have authority -- the logical choice being the Environmental Protection Agency. The chemical industry feared that the EPA may end up being too hard to control (in future administrations, not this one) and advocated placing authority at Homeland Security.

The other issue is how to make chemical plants secure. The favored solutions of the chemical industry and Congressional Republicans are more guns, higher gates and tougher guards. Corzine, the Dems, labor and the environmental community advocate adding inherently safer technologies to the "Three G's" -- safer substitutes for highly hazardous chemicals, and where they can't be replaced, storing them in small quantities. The advantage there is that you're reducing or eliminating the terrorist's target, as well as reducing the chance of a "home-grown" chemical catastropher like Bhopal.

Since Congress has refused to act for so long, states, such as New Jersey, have begun passing their own legislation. So now we have a new problem -- the right of states to have stronger regulations than the (eventual) federal regs.

The Times notes that the proposed Collins/Lieberman bill addresses one of those problems (pre-emption), ignores another (inherently safer technologies), and apparently admits defeat on the third (Homeland Security vs. EPA).

Until recently, it appeared that the bill might include pre-emption language, which would block states from coming up with their own chemical security rules. That would have made the bill worse than no bill at all. New Jersey has just imposed its own chemical plant security rules, and other states may follow. These states should be free to protect their citizens more vigorously than the federal government does, if they choose. To Senator Collins's and Senator Lieberman's credit, the bill now expressly declares that it does not prevent states from doing more.

The bill's biggest weakness is that it does not address the issue of alternative chemicals. In many cases, chemical plants in highly populated areas are using dangerous chemicals when there are safer, cost-effective substitutes. A strong bill would require chemical companies to investigate alternatives, and to use them when the cost is not prohibitive. Senator Lieberman has said that he hopes to strengthen the bill's approach to alternative chemicals, which would be an important improvement.

In Washington one measures progress in steps forward that are always accompanied by steps backward. Where will we end up on this?

Stay tuned.