Chemical Security Gaps Unfilled

Article excerpt

Five years after U.S. senators learned that al-Qaida was planning attacks against America's chemical facilities, partisan politics keeps in limbo legislation designed to shore up decades of shoddy security at plants nationwide.

An attack at a major chemical plant could unleash poisonous gases or rolling explosions that kill, injure or displace tens of thousands of people living nearby, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Crafted by Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Joe Lieberman, D- Conn., in a show of bipartisan support, the Chemical Facility Security Act would give DHS power to scrutinize how chemical plants store, ship or guard their stores of deadly substances. Other provisions would mandate periodic drills with plant workers, police and first responders to mitigate the aftermath of a toxic attack.

A similar bill approved by the House Homeland Security Committee would prod plants toward switching to "inherently safer technologies" and processes that promise to remove highly explosive or poisonous ingredients from the vats at chemical works deemed of the "highest risk" to large, urban populations.

Companies would be exempted from the "inherently safer" tag if they proved the reforms were economically unfeasible or if DHS approved continuing use of dangerous chemicals.

Committee Chair Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., has vowed to leave the "inherently safer" language alone when the bill goes to a joint Senate-House committee.

Not that it matters, because neither the Senate nor the House version has budged. Conservative lawmakers, such as Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., remain concerned the bill isn't fully based on science, intrudes into the business decisions of private companies and conflicts with pending legislation designed to fix lax security at wastewater treatment plants, many of which use highly toxic chlorine gas.

Lieberman and Collins pleaded in a July letter to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., for help shepherding the bill to a vote. So far, he hasn't responded and declined to discuss the issue with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

The largest chemical manufacturers have embraced the bills and increased regulation of their industry. The government now oversees security for nuclear, water treatment and food processing operations, but not the chemical industry.

"The biggest fears of our members is that there will be an attack on a facility somewhere in the world. It doesn't have to be at one of our facilities, or even really be a chemical facility. But Congress will then step into the vacuum and create legislation that will make it hard for us to do business," said Marty Durbin, managing director of federal affairs for the American Chemistry Council, an industry trade group.

"We'd rather have something like the bipartisan legislation that's out there now, rather than something worse later."

The ACC -- made up of companies such as Dow and DuPont -- combines to produce nearly 85 percent of the nation's toxic chemicals, but members comprise only about 7 percent of all facilities storing, using or shipping deadly gases and explosives. …