Chemical-plant security vexes Congress

A compromise emerged this summer, but now House leaders seek to limit DHS authority to regulate such security.

A toxic battle is brewing on Capitol Hill over how to secure the nation's chemical plants from terrorist attack.

At issue is whether the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) should have the authority to require chemical plants to implement specific security measures, such as switching to safer chemicals or using armed guards. The chemical industry and House Republican leaders believe it should not. Instead, they favor allowing companies to come up with their own security proposals that can then be reviewed and approved by DHS.

On the other side are environmentalists, some security experts, moderate Republicans, and Democrats. They believe DHS should have the ability to require companies to make security improvements, as long as companies have an opportunity to appeal requirements to which they object.

But all sides agree on one thing: It's way past time for the government to come up with some kind of legislation requiring improved security at the nation's chemical plants.

"It's unacceptable we don't have a piece of legislation on such a significant critical infrastructure that, if attacked, could have potentially catastrophic consequences," says Frank Cilluffo, director of George Washington University's Homeland Security Policy Institute in Washington.

Several factors are responsible for the lack of legislation five years after 9/11. In the first few years after the attacks, the chemical industry convinced congressional leaders they could self-regulate. The American Chemistry Council (ACC), which represents 133 chemical manufacturers, set up standards and guidelines to help companies identify their vulnerabilities and create security plans to address them. The ACC says its members have spent $3 billion enhancing security in the past five years.

But investigations done by the media, the Government Accountability Office, and environmental groups made it clear that while some industry players have done a good job in "raising the bar" for security, as Mr. Cilluffo puts it, not all have. Significant vulnerabilities remained, some in densely populated urban areas. Eventually, even the ACC conceded that some kind of legislation was needed to bring uniformity to security in the industry.

"We've been very clear that we want legislation passed this year and what it would look like," says Scott Jensen, a spokesman for the ACC. "It would be risk-based, performance oriented, and it would not include [inherently safer technologies]."

Known as IST in the industry, this essentially means switching from some of the most deadly chemicals to less harmful ones whenever it's technologically and economically feasible.

This summer, the House Committee on Homeland Security unanimously approved a compromise bill that would give DHS the authority to require some high-risk facilities to use safer chemicals when feasible. If a company disagreed with DHS, the bill set up an interagency appeal process.

It was a hard-fought compromise. But now, its advocates contend that the chemical industry, in conjunction with the White House and the Republican leadership, is reneging on the deal. Instead of bringing it to the floor for a vote, House Republican leaders are amending the Homeland Security appropriations bill: It would give DHS the authority to require chemical plants to develop vulnerability assessments and security plans, but it would specifically forbid DHS from requiring any specific security measure. It reads, "Nothing in this section authorizes the Secretary directly or indirectly to require any particular security measure." Environmental advocates say that line is aimed at ensuring that DHS cannot require companies to switch to safer chemicals when feasible.

"The industry didn't like what was passed in committee, and now they're using the appropriations process to craft a drastically weak, completely industry-friendly version and present it as a fait accompli," says Andy Igrejas of the National Environmental Trust, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group based in Washington. "A congressman can oppose it, but to do so, he or she'd have to vote against Homeland Security appropriations just six weeks before an election."

Mr. Igrejas adds, "There was an open process where competing proposals led to something that was a deal [Republican leadership] agreed to honor, and now instead, under industry pressure" it's going back on its word, he says.

But Mr. Jensen of the ACC disagrees. He says the industry is simply using the legislative process to advocate what it believes is right.

"We're not against IST. The chemical industry developed and created it," he says. "However, what we are against is banning chemicals under the guise of security. We think the legislation should work toward securing those chemicals, rather than banning them."

Some security experts say they're not surprised the sides remain so polarized, but contend it's crucial to get legislation passed soon.

"I'd at least like to see some kind of starting point so we can pull together more and better information so we can figure out how to proceed in the long run," says Jack Riley, a security expert at the RAND Corp. in Arlington, Va.

The House appropriations bill for Homeland Security is still being negotiated, but is expected to be voted on before Congress recesses for the November elections.

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