DHS relaxes chemical plant reporting rules

Published 5 November 2007

In April DHS issues a list of 344 hazardous chemicals which businesses would have to track and disclose to the department through an online reporting system; under pressure from several industries, the list is reduced to 300, and reporting threshold of many chemicals of highest security concern raised

In a move which would please the chemical industry, DHS late last week eased rules requiring tens of thousands of U.S. chemical plants to protect their stockpiles from terrorists. The move would disappoint environmentalists, though, and Democratic lawmakers who said they will beef up requirements next year. The regulations will touch a wide range of U.S. industry, including pulp and paper mills, petroleum plants, food and agriculture facilities, and manufacturing and industrial cleaning sites. The measure has been delayed for years by disagreements within the Bush administration over the need for new regulations after the 2001 terrorist attacks. The Washington Post’s Spencer Hsu writes that partisan battling is likely to intensify in the Democratic Congress because the chemical security legislation expires in September 2009. DHS secretary Michael Chertoff described the rules as “a critical piece” of federal efforts to diminish the threat posed by large private stockpiles of dangerous chemicals.

In April DHS proposed a list of 344 chemicals which businesses would have to track and disclose to the department through an online reporting system. Under heavy criticism from industry, DHS released a less stringent version last week, reducing the number of targeted chemicals to about 300 and raising the reporting threshold of many chemicals of highest security concern. For example, DHS increased the reporting trigger for stored chlorine from 1,875 pounds to 2,500 pounds, exempting a standard one-ton shipping cylinder used by industry. Insurgents in Iraq have used bombs to disperse liquid chlorine into toxic gas clouds. DHS also increased the disclosure threshold for ammonium nitrate from 7,500 pounds to 10,000 pounds. This substance was a component in fertilizer-based bombs used in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center. “There are 10 widely recognized ultra-hazardous chemicals…. To a chemical, their thresholds increased,” said Rick Hind, legislative director for Greenpeace Toxics Campaign. “When push comes to shove, Homeland Security here folded like a sheet to industry pressure…. It’s clear for whom these laws and loopholes were written.”

DHS officials said they made the changes after receiving 4,400 comments, most of them critical. They said that they raised some thresholds to match triggers set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to require local disclosure and accident planning. DHS initially set some thresholds at 75 percent of EPA levels. “We’ve tried to craft this regulation to capture… both where we think the [greatest] consequence is, and to reflect what is practiced in the industry and how it works,” said Christina McDonald of the DHS Office of General Counsel. “We tried to create a balance.” P. J. Crowley, director of homeland security at the Democratic think tank Center for American Progress, said that security standards should be higher than safety standards, “since the risk associated with a deliberate terrorist attack is more severe than the potential for an accidental release.” Some Senate Democrats praised DHS for easing rules on propane, for which it lifted the reporting threshold from 7,500 pounds to 60,000 pounds. Chicken farmers complained that 20,000 farms could be affected by the initial rule, causing the propane provision to lead to 90 percent of DHS comments. Senator Joseph Lieberman (I-Connecticut), chairman of the Senate’s homeland security panel, called the new rules “good news.” The American Chemistry Council, which represents the nation’s largest chemical companies, including Dow Chemical, DuPont, and BASF, also said it “strongly supports” DHS’s approach.