Monday, October 02, 2006

The US Congress: "Doing Businesses' Bidding" On Chemical Plant Security

Well, five years after 9/11, the House of Representatives has finally passed legislation covering chemical plant security by sticking it onto a must-pass homeland security budget bill.

In a largely party-line vote last Friday, the House of Reprentatives voted 221 to 186 not to strip some of the most harmful provisions from the bill. Earlier in the year, House and Senate committees passed much stronger bills (H.R. 5695) and Senate (S. 2145).

But as the Philadelphia Inquirer editorializes:
It's an underhanded tactic to accomplish industry's bidding, but representatives folded with rationalizations such as: "It's better than nothing," and "It's time to quit talking and get something done." The American public deserves better than this illusion of security.

The two-page rider reads like a custom order from chemical manufacturers, who only recently dropped rigorous opposition to any mandatory security regulation.

The bill will establish some kind of standards for 34,000 facilities where chemicals are made or used, and the Homeland Security Department will have the authority to inspect plants and even shut them down.

But there's little assurance that the standards will have any teeth. The rider says, "The secretary may approve alternative security programs established by private sector entities" - in other words, the very voluntary measures the industry has been pushing all along. Secretary Michael Chertoff should be proactive in creating stronger requirements.

Gone is a provision in the House bill requiring high-risk facilities to consider and, when economically and technologically feasible, to use safer chemicals or processes to protect surrounding communities. The appropriations rider also exempts water- and wastewater-treatment plants, which use and store highly toxic chlorine, from oversight.

The Senate bill specifically protected states' rights to impose stronger security requirements, as New Jersey has done. The rider leaves it to judges to sort out state and federal jurisdiction.

The American Chemistry Council, which represents 133 chemical manufacturers who encompass approximately 85% of chemical production capacity in the United States, couldn't have been more pleased.
“ACC would like to thank Congress for their work in accomplishing our shared objective of passing meaningful chemical security legislation this year. This measure represents significant progress in the effort to secure America’s chemical industry, an essential part of the nation’s critical infrastructure.

“While this bill is not a home run, Congress came through in the last inning to deliver essential chemical security legislation.
According to Congressman Ed Markey (D-MA),
“There are night clubs in New York City that are harder to get into than some of our chemical plants. Yet the Republicans acquiesced to the wishes of the chemical industry behind closed doors to negotiate the weak, inadequate language contained in this conference report.
Markey had four main problems with the bill:

  • It exempts all but high-risk facilities from doing any kind of risk assessments and site security plans.
  • DHS is prohibited from disapproving a facility’s security plan because of the absence of any specific security measure (i.e. broken fences, cameras, etc.)
  • Exempts even high-risk facilities that are regulated under other laws from being regulated for security by DHS, no matter how weak those laws are. For example, water treatment plants are exempted because EPA regulations cover many of their operations. Nearly 100 of them each put 100,000 or more people at risk.
  • It doesn't give states the right to pass stronger protections.
In addition, the bill sets no deadlines by which DHS must approve or disapprove plant security plans, doesn't require security exercises or involve plant workers in the development of security plans.