Senator Inhofe may introduce a rival chemical plant safety bill

Published 4 May 2006

Chemical industry ally to offer chemical plant safety bill to rival the one being proposed by Senators Collins and Lieberman; new bill more hospitable to industry concerns about IST and protection of companies industrial secrets

We wrote above on how the shipping industry has been successful so far in its efforts to prevent inclusion of language mandating 100 percent inspection of cargo containers in shipping safety legislation. The chemical industry may prove successful in its efforts to prevent the inclusion in chemical safety legislation of language calling for replacing the most toxic chemicals produced and used in such plants with “inherently safer technology” (IST), a fancy term for safer chemicals.

The story line is familiar. There are 15,000 chemical plants in the United States; security experts agree that, short of a nuclear attack on an American city, these plants pose the greatest risk for mass-casualty catastrophe in the event of an accident or a terrorist attack. The Environemtnal Protection Agency (EPA) and the Congressional research Service (CRS) have identified more than 100 plants located near populated areas in each of which the accidental or terorist-induced release of toxic chemcials would pose a Bhopal-like deadly threat to more than one million people. There are about 350 plants in each of which a release of chemicals would threant more than 50,000. The chemical industry has made nearly $30 million in campaign donations, more than 80 percent of it to Republican legislators, and for four years has managed to stave of legislation which would impose safety standrads on the industry. Instead, the industry has been allowed to formulate what has been politely called “voluntary, industry-developed” safety standards. Security experts — and concerned industry insiders — describe these measures as not much more than window dressing.

Congress, and DHS, have become increasingly impatient with the industry’s foot dragging, and there is now legislatio in the Senate stipulating that chemical plants would have to take security more seriously, or risk being shut down by the government. The industry has realized that the era of laissez-faire toward plant security is over, and has adopted amore sophisticated approach. It now accepts that federal regulation is inevitable, but it is fighting for the legislation to have two features: First, that weaker federal rules would always supersede togher state rules (thus, the federal law being contemplated would weaken New Jersey’s chemical plant sfaety regulations; second, the industry wants to make sure that plants will not be required to replace the most volatile and denageours chemiclas they use with IST.

On that second front thaey have now found a strong ally in Senator James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma), chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Inhofe, whose committee had jurisdiction over chemical security before homeland security was placed under the jurisdiction of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, has scheduled a hearing Tuesday which will show-case opponents of IST. “Liberal environmental activists and special interests have been promoting the concept of inherently safer technology for years because it would only eliminate the use of chemicals they don’t like,” Inhofe said. “IST is not a solution for improving security, and the Department of Homeland Security opposes its use for that purpose.”

Inhofe may sonsor his own chemical security bill, to rival the Chemical Security and Safety Act of 2006 (S 2145) sposored by Senators Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Joseph Liberman (D-Connecticut). Lieberman has said he would introduce specific IST language as an amendment, which Collins opposes. Another chemical security bill (S 2486), introduced by Senators Frank Lautenberg (D-New Jersey) and Barack Obama (D-Illinois), also requires IST.