Democrats try to modify chemical plant safety bill

Published 23 March 2007

The chemical plant sfatey bill before Congress allows DHS to overrule (or “pre-empt”) states’ safety rules if these rules are more stringent than federal rules; Democrats try to change that

Even after 9/11, with worries about terrorism running high, the U.S. petrochemical industry escaped tight monitoring of its safety practices. Thanks to generous contributions to the campaign coffers of lawmakers, and support from the White House, the industry was allowed instead to develop what was euphemistically called “voluntary, industry-developed” safety standards, which even industry insiders admitted were not much more than window dressing. The result was that the most dangerous terrorist targets in the United States were left largely unsupervised.

Congress eventually ran out of patience with the industry and proposed measures which would allow DHS to be more involved in monitoring the safety practices of chemical plants. The chemical industry, rather than fight the inevitable, concentrated instead on making sure that the legislation would do three things: It would allow federal “pre-emption” of states’ chemical plant safety standards (that is, if, say, New Jersey had tougher safety rules than those required by the federal mandate, than New Jersey’s rules would be superceded by federal rules); it would not mandate that plants operating near population centers substitute the most toxic and volatile chemicls they use with safer ones; and it would exempt information given the federal government by chemical plants from Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) disclosures.

Yesterday, Democrats in the Senate tried to modify the first of these elements in the bill by attaching a provision to an Iraq war funding bill. Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-New Jersey), who is among the leaders of the move to modify the original bill, said that that his bill “supports stronger chemical security laws like those in New Jersey and protects states’ rights. The Bush Administration should not undermine these state laws and leave our country at risk of a chemical attack.” Note that last week similar language was inserted into the House of Representatives version of the supplemental bill by Representative Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas).

AP reports that figures from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Congressional Research Service (CRS) show that there are about 14,000 high-risk chemical facilities in the United States, with more than 100 relatively close to populations of one million or more. About 7,000 of these plants put 1,000 or more people at risk, and about 550 of those place 100,000 or more at risk in the event of an accident or attack.

The Bush administration and the chemical industry strongly oppose the Lautenberg initiative. DHS spokesman Russ Knocke said there is no question that states and localities have an important role to play, but when it comes to terrorism, the expectation is that the federal government is responsible for protecting the country. Jack Gerard, president of the American Chemistry Council (ACC), which represents the largest producers of chemicals in the country, said that “Congress should support these regulations, not undermine the DHS rules before they are even implemented. If Congress meddles with the law, chemical facilities that are already implementing stringent security measures will be left in limbo about their regulatory obligations.”

-read more about the lucrative opportunities U.S. chemical plants offer terrorists in Stephen Flynn, “The Next Attack,” Washington Monthly (