Chemical industry ready to square off over security bill

The chemical industry and a coalition of environmental groups and labor unions are at odds over a bill scheduled to be marked up Wednesday by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

The bill would give the Homeland Security Department authority, for the first time, to establish security regulations for companies that manufacture, process, store and sell chemicals.

A coalition of groups that includes Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, the United Steelworkers of America and the United Auto Workers argue the bill does not go far enough, while the American Chemistry Council opposes provisions that it says are onerous or duplicative of other security programs.

Issues that are particularly contentious include whether the bill should require companies to adopt safer technologies, whether states should be able to pass laws that are stiffer than federal regulations, and whether security measures that the chemical industry has voluntarily adopted should be considered adequate.

"We have never tried to get a free pass," said Marty Durbin, managing director of federal affairs for the American Chemistry Council, which includes major companies that make chemical products.

Durbin said ACC members have voluntarily completed vulnerability assessments and implemented strong security measures. "Give us credit for being out there early and aggressively doing what needs to get done," he said.

But the coalition of environmental groups and unions wants the bill to require chemical facilities to move to safer technologies. "Virtually all high-hazard facilities can eliminate or reduce the terrorist threat either by converting to safer technologies or using smaller storage quantities," the coalition said in a June 7 letter to Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairwoman Susan Collins, R-Maine.

Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs ranking member Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., and Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., are expected to introduce amendments Wednesday that would establish requirements for safer technology.

Durbin said the ACC believes that such a requirement would doom the bill from passing the full Senate.

"Politically, if it's in the bill, this is not going to move forward in the Senate. We won't have a chemical security bill this year," he warned. "Where the rub comes in is who's making the decision [about safer technologies] at the end of the day. Our view is that it's the process safety experts within our companies, within our industry, that are much better situated to make these complex risk decisions."

The coalition also supports the ability of states to pass stronger laws than the federal government. "In order to maintain maximum local control, a national standard must be a floor, not a ceiling, to ensure a minimum level of safety and security across the country," the coalition letter said.

The ACC, however, contends that it would be a nightmare for industry to have to deal with multiple states that have different security regimes. Durbin said Maryland, New York and New Jersey already have passed their own regulations. He added that the Coast Guard also regulates chemical facilities located at seaports.

"You can't do this piecemeal," he said. "We really believe that, from a homeland security standpoint, you've got to have that uniform national system."

The House Homeland Security Committee is also expected to mark up a chemical security bill this summer. Durbin said he had not yet seen the draft language for that bill, but the ACC has communicated its concerns to House lawmakers.

But an alleged terrorist plot in Canada involving ammonium nitrate has apparently caught the attention of the House committee. Earlier this month, Canadian authorities arrested 17 suspects who were allegedly plotting to blow up buildings using three tons of the ammonium nitrate.

In response, the committee plans to mark up a bill Wednesday, sponsored by Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa., that would authorize the Homeland Security Department to regulate the production, storage, sale and distribution of ammonium nitrate.

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