Debate over chemical plant security heats up -- again, I

Published 23 April 2010

The current chemical plant security law was passed in 2006 and expires in October; some lawmakers want to strengthen it, while the chemical industry want the law renewed without changes, saying chemical plants have taken steps to prevent accidental or terrorist-induced releases of dangerous compounds

Bob Bostock, the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) top homeland security policy adviser from 2001 to 2003, says there is one scenario that still keeps him awake at night: A terrorist breaches a chemical plant’s chlorine storage tank in, say, northern New Jersey, unleashing a toxic cloud that kills thousands. “It’s not that hard to do,” said Bostock. “It doesn’t require a high level of sophistication and in some cases doesn’t even require access to the facility. It’s something that could be done from off site.”

Jim Morris of the Center for Public Integrity writes in Politico that Bostock’s recurring nightmare is at the center of a seemingly interminable argument over chemical plant security on Capitol Hill that could be re-engaged in the coming weeks.

Legislation passed by the House last fall would require major manufacturers and users of such deadly gases as chlorine to consider converting to safer alternatives and submit to stricter oversight by DHS (see “House Tightens Chemical Plant Safety Bill,” 10 November 2009 HSNW). In some cases, DHS could force the highest-risk facilities to switch. Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-New Jersey) has said he will introduce a bill at least as rigorous as the House version in the near future.

The current law, which was enacted in 2006 and expires in October, is weak, according to Rick Hind, legislative director for Greenpeace. “The standards are, for the most part, voluntary,” Hind said. “They’re very industry-friendly. The House bill is much more enforceable.”

Morris writes that the chemical lobby is pushing back. At a 3 March hearing held by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, representatives of the American Chemistry Council (ACC) and the Society of Chemical Manufacturers and Affiliates argued for the status quo, saying they have taken steps to prevent accidental or terrorist-induced releases of dangerous compounds. If they are forced to stop using such substances as chlorine, they said, there would be job losses and even plant closures. Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine) is sympathetic to their position and has introduced legislation that would extend existing regulations for five years.

“Our track record is very, very good on this front,” ACC president and CEO Cal Dooley, a former Democratic congressman from California, told Morris in an interview. “When we see congressional proposals that would give the Department of Homeland Security and the bureaucrats the authority to mandate certain technologies, we find that inappropriate.” What is now a collaborative relationship between DHS and the industry would become adversarial, Dooley said. “That’s not in anyone’s interest.”

Morris notes that the chemical industry has considerable pull in Washington, having spent more than $45 million on lobbying in 2009, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The ACC spent the most — $7 million — among individual trade groups and companies. Dow Chemical spent nearly $6 million, and DuPont shelled out $3.75 million.

In 2007-8 the industry as a whole donated $9.3 million to federal candidates, two-thirds of them Republicans. The mix has changed for the 2010 cycle, with only about 55 percent of its $3.1 million in contributions going to Republicans.

In a report last August, Greenpeace charged that industry lobbying “has derailed or crippled comprehensive legislation” to tighten chemical plant security in every Congress since the 9/11 attacks. “We respectfully disagree,” the ACC said in a statement, “and would say that deeds speak louder than words.” The group says its 140 member companies have invested more than $8 billion in security enhancements — guards, perimeter fencing, video surveillance equipment — since 2001 (see New Survey Shows Many Water, Wastewater Plants Improve Chemical Security,” 9 March 2010 HSNW). The current law, the group says, has “teeth and bite for those who fail to take security seriously. Any facility that fails to act can be fined or shut down by DHS” (Morris notes that a DHS spokesman confirmed that the department has yet to do either).

In a statement, Sue Armstrong, DHS’s acting deputy assistant secretary for infrastructure protection, said the department has acquired basic information on about 38,000 chemical sites, about 5,800 of which have been deemed high risk. These sites must turn in security plans and are subject to DHS inspections. “The department’s current focus is on working with industry to ensure compliance with this relatively new and first-of-its-kind security regulatory program,” Armstrong said.

Hind said the law is deficient because it bars DHS from requiring specific security fixes. Moreover, the U.S. 2,400 drinking water and wastewater treatment plants, some of which use large quantities of chlorine for disinfection, are exempted. Senate Homeland Security Committee chairman Joe Lieberman (I-Connecticut) has called this a “troublesome security gap.” Both types of operations would be covered under the 2009 House bill.

On Monday: Where we go from here