Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Ho, Hum. Yet More Chem Plant Security Stuff

I write frequently about how, amidst all of the talk from this administration about defending this country from terrorism, there is still no legislation mandating better security in our nation's chemical facilities. In case you've forgotten, US News and World Report has now gotten on board, reminding its readers that weapons of mass destruction begin at home:
Nationwide, there are some 15,000 facilities--including oil refineries, water-treatment plants, and factories--that use hazardous chemicals to manufacture paints and fertilizers. Over 100 of those plants have reported that a worst-case scenario, like a terrorist attack, could endanger more than 1 million people, according to the Congressional Research Service.
The magazine also has some unkind things to say about the chemical industry:
Some larger companies have dramatically stepped up security on their own, but government efforts have been a series of false starts. Former Democratic Sen. Jon Corzine introduced a bill with strict plant regulations six weeks after 9/11, but it died in committee. Former Department of Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, then an adviser, and then EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman hatched an oversight plan for a handful of the riskiest facilities in 2002, but administration officials quashed it. White House documents show that industry representatives met with White House adviser Karl Rove around the same time to express their disapproval for an expanded EPA role. "These guys fight dirty," says Andy Igrejas of the National Environmental Trust. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the chemical industry and related manufacturers donated more than $27 million to campaigns over the past four election cycles, almost 80 percent of it to Republicans.

"Window dressing"? Robert Stephan, a DHS assistant secretary who oversees chemical facilities, says a small minority of plants won't let DHS officials on their premises and many more prohibit them from leaving with any written notes. The American Chemistry Council, the leading industry group, says its 2,000 chemical facilities have invested nearly $3 billion in security since 9/11 to adhere to an industry-developed set of voluntary security measures. But Sal DePasquale, a former security official with Georgia-Pacific Corp., who helped craft the code, calls it "window dressing." He says investments in cameras, fencing, and network security are "a sorry joke" compared with the highly armed teams that guard nuclear plants. DHS estimates 20 percent of the roughly 300 highest-risk plants aren't even signed up for a voluntary program.
As I reported recently, Senator Susan Collins has introduced "compromise" legislation that conserves states' rights to issue regulations more stringent than federal regulations. The chemical industry also has a problem with that provision:
Marty Durbin of the ACC says his organization hopes to eliminate a clause in the bill that allows states to be tougher on the industry than the feds; he says the ACC simply wants uniformity nationwide. New Jersey has already enacted stringent rules. Also sure to be revisited: whether especially hazardous chemicals, like chlorine gas, should be banned or restricted in plants when safer alternatives are available. For now, Collins's bill leaves that decision up to DHS.