Friday, June 16, 2006

Chemical Plant Security Bill Goes From Bad To Worse

After voting down a requirement that high risk chemical facilities use inherently safer technologies on Wednesday, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee proceeded to make the bill even worse on Thursday before unanimously approving it and sending it to the Senate floor for a final vote.

The committee voted to approve an amendment by George Voinovich (R-OH) that would prohibit Homeland Security from disclosing to the public when chemical plants are not in compliance with security requirements, and restricts the public's ability to sue chemical companies for alleged violations of the act.

Senator Joseph Lieberman (D-CT) led the opposition to Voinovich's amendments:
Lieberman called the provisions "unwise and unfair" and said he would try to eliminate the amendment when the bill reaches the Senate floor. "People who live in the shadow of chemical plants should have the right to know how safe those plants are, and they should be allowed to challenge DHS actions, or inactions, if they believe their safety is in jeopardy," Lieberman argued. Proponents said the measures would keep sensitive information out of the hands of terrorists.
Other amendments makes it harder to bring criminal charges against plants that are not in compliance:
The amendment was altered during the markup to stipulate that chemical companies must knowingly and willfully violate their security plans in order to face criminal penalties. Another change to the amendment gives Homeland Security the ability to waive annual inspections of chemical facilities if they are found to be in compliance with their security plans for five consecutive years.
Environmentalists were not happy with the result:
"Among the bill's most serious failures is the refusal to require the elimination of unnecessary risks with proven safer and cost-effective technologies," said Greenpeace's Rick Hind in a statement. "Guards, guns and gates alone will not protect millions of Americans currently at risk."
The chemical industry was mostly pleased, as might be expected. According to American Chemistry Council President, Jack Gerard,
ACC is encouraged by the direction of the debate today in which the panel clarified the bill’s essential focus on security by limiting government’s ability to mandate chemistry processes. And, we applaud the panel for strengthening the protection of sensitive security information.
The only fly in the chemical industry's ointment was the committee's failure to approve language that would have pre-empted stronger state laws. According to Gerard:
However we are still concerned the bill allows a potential patchwork of discordant and confusing state-level regulations which will weaken security. Chemical security is a national issue that requires a uniform national response which is why we have called for federal preemption. We will continue to work with Congress to ensure federal preemption is included in the bill. The 900,000 people who work in the chemical industry, the communities where they live and work, and the millions of Americans who rely on our products, deserve no less.”
New Jersey has passed its own chemical plant security legislation that requires chemical plants using the most hazardous chemical are required to review the potential for adopting inherently safer technologies. The chemical industry is scared to death that more states may decide that the chemical companies can't always be trusted to ensure the safety of the community.