Senate takes first step toward regulating chemical plant safety

Published 13 July 2006

The Senate takes a step – half a step, critics charge – toward a more meaningful safety scheme for chemical plants

A historic day: The Senate agreed yesterday to allow the government to regulate security at chemical manufacturing plants, a first step for better protection against potential terrorist attacks and accidents. Short of a nuclear attack on an American city, the thousands of chemical plants in the United States pose the gravest risk of mass-casualty catastrophe if an accident or a terrorist attack were to happen in them. The chemical industry and its friends in Congress and the White have resisted efforts to impose meaningful safety standards on the industry, but the incongruity of allowing this industry, of all industries, to regulate its own safety in the age of terror has finally caught up even with legislators whose campaign coffers benefited handsomely from the industry’s generous contributions.

We should not get carried away, though. DHS was given but limited authority to oversee the industry’s safety practices. The Senate proposal empowers the department to regulate the industry as it sees fit for now. A couple of months ago DHS secretary Michael Chertoff made a tough speech about the safety of chemical plants, but the details of his proposal — calling for regulatory power which largely would let the industry decide on protections and leave inspections to private auditors