Analysis: Debate over chemical plant safety bill intensifies

Published 3 April 2006

The debate in the Senate over the chemical plants safety bill intensifies; the major contention: whether or not plants will be required to adopt IST (inherently safe technologies)

A key element for securing chemical plants is the concept of “inherently safer technology” (IST). Security experts and environmentalists who agitate for tighter security regulations of the chemical industry argue that real security of chemical plants would be achieved only if those facilities closest to urban centers would be required to replace the most deadly and volatile chemicals they use with IST. Now, a bill (S 2145) introduced in December by Senate Homeland Security Committee chairwoman Susan Collins (R-Maine) and ranking Democrat Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut does not contain the phrase. Moreover, in a major speech on the topic two weeks ago, DHS secretary Michael Chertoff specifically objected to this imposition.

A competing bill (S 2486), however, introduced by Senators Barack Obama (D-Illinois) and Frank Lautenberg (D-New Jersey), explicitly calls for the use of IST. The introduction of the Obama-Lautenberg bill would make it more difficult for the American Chemistry Council (ACC) to make sure that IST is not part of any legislation aiming to make chemical facilities more secure. Even before the proposal of S 2486, the ACC was already engaging its lobbyists and legal advisers to alter two provisions in the Collins-Lieberman bill which, to the ears of the ACC, implied the possibility of IST:

” The first provision in the 53-page Collins-Lieberman bill says security measures should protect against the consequences of a terrorist attack by reducing “substances of concern.” Under the Senate bill, DHS could mandate that certain chemicals have to be redesigned, that certain components have to be substituted, or that an entire chemical plant infrastructure has to be altered. If those steps are not taken, DHS could decline to approve a chemical facility’s security plan and the plant ultimately could be shut down.

” The second provision in the Collins-Lieberman bill is even more troubling to the ACC, because it says a chemical site security plan should include “measures to mitigate the consequences of a terrorist incident.” your plant, you must mitigate the consequences, assuming the terrorists blow it up,” he said.

The ACC views these two provisions as holding the potential of introducing IST through the back door. The committee’s majority staff calls the ACC’s interpretation of the bill’s language too broad, and says the bill encourages the reduction of dangerous chemicals but does not require it, according to the staffers. Security analysts and environmental groups, on the other hand, say the language concerning IST in the Collins-Lieberman bill is too weak.

The Obama-Lautenberg bill complicates the ACC task. If the organization succeeds in weakening the two provisions it worries about in S 2145, then unsatisfied senators may find the Obama-Lautenberg bill more appealing and support it. Moreover, Senator Lieberman has just announced that he would introduce an amendment to S 2145 which would specifically mention safer technologies.