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Policy

Chemical Plant Security

Congress tries to alter anticipated DHS regulations

by Lois Ember
March 26, 2007 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 85, ISSUE 13

A provision on chemical plant security is sparking heated debate and creative legislative choreography in the House and Senate as well as at the state level.

The provision would undo regulations the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is set to issue in April to secure chemical facilities at high risk for terrorist attacks (C&EN, March 19, page 39). It is tucked into the $124 billion emergency supplemental spending bill to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan approved by the House Appropriations Committee on March 15.

At press time on March 22, the full House was debating the supplemental bill, and Democrats were scouting for the needed votes for its passage. Also at press time, the Senate Appropriations Committee was marking up its $122 billion war supplemental bill, which contains a security provision offered as an amendment by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.). The amendment is similar to the House provision but stronger on disallowing federal preemption.

The White House indicated that President George W. Bush would veto any bill that set a timetable for troop withdrawal from Iraq or included nonmilitary spending. At press time, the House and Senate bills do both.

In their chemical plant security provision, House appropriators seek to redress "areas of concern" in the proposed security regulations DHS issued last December. These focus on preemption of state laws, use of specific security measures, information protection, and private rights of action.

In December, DHS proposed federal preemption of state chemical plant security regulations such as those issued by New Jersey. The provision approved in committee, however, states that DHS can only approve a facility's security plan if it meets or exceeds security standards set for the facility by the state.

The committee-approved provision also would allow private citizens to sue a chemical facility or DHS over industry security programs. DHS would also be allowed to determine whether a facility's security plan is sufficient. And finally, the provision would undo DHS's proposed classification category for information contained in facility vulnerability assessments and security plans.

In language paralleling the concerns of some Republican senators, American Chemistry Council President and CEO Jack N. Gerard has called on Congress to "stop debating amendments that would derail this long-overdue effort to secure the nation's high-risk chemical plants."

Just in case the security provision is stripped from the bill during full House floor debate or the President vetoes a supplemental passed by Congress, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) offers a fallback position. She has introduced a separate bill that parallels the House bill's security language.

In the meantime, New Jersey officials have strengthened the state's chemical plant security rules by expanding the number of chemical facilities covered from 42 to 94 and requiring them to reconsider the use of safer technologies every five years.

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