Panel rejects stricter measures to protect chemical plants

Controversial amendments to a Senate chemical security bill were shot down Wednesday, including provisions that would have required chemical facilities to use safer technologies and prevented states from passing laws that are stiffer than federal regulations.

The bill would give the Homeland Security Department authority, for the first time, to regulate all facilities that make, process, store or sell chemicals. The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee was unable to move through all amendments to the bill Wednesday and plans to continue the markup at a later date.

But members debated and voted on a few of the most controversial amendments, including one from Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs ranking member Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., and Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., that would have required chemical facilities deemed by the Homeland Security Department as posing the highest risk to use safer technologies.

Lieberman said the requirement would probably apply to about 360 out of 15,000 facilities in the country. But the amendment would allow facilities to make a case to the department that using safer technologies would pose a significant financial hardship or would not be technically feasible.

The amendment failed by an 11-5 vote, which did not split along party lines.

Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairwoman Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., led the opposition. "I simply don't think it's an appropriate role for government ... to dictate specific industrial processes," Collins said. "We don't have the expertise to do that and we shouldn't do that."

Coburn said the amendment would create a "litigation nightmare" between chemical facilities and the government.

"This reminds me of Soviet-style mandates for how we'll do things," he said. "If this is in the bill, I will do everything I can to make sure this bill never moves."

A Lieberman aide said he plans to reintroduce the amendment if the bill makes it to the Senate floor.

An amendment by Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, that would have prevented states from passing their own laws regulating the chemical industry was defeated by a 9-7 vote, which also did not break along party lines. The bill permits state and local governments to pass their own laws.

Voinovich argued, however, that there should be a single national standard for the chemical industry that pre-empts state and local government authority. He said his amendment would allow state and local authorities to apply to the Homeland Security Department for permission to pass their own regulations.

Regulating chemical plants should be considered a national defense matter, he said, adding that the federal government already has other laws that pre-empt state and local authority. "This is a war type of atmosphere that we're in, so it's within the jurisdiction of the federal government," he said.

Collins led opposition to the amendment. "On balance, I come down on preserving the rights of state and local governments to legislate in this area," she said.

Another amendment by Voinovich that would have recognized security standards already in place at some chemical plants also was defeated by an 8-8 vote.

According to Collins, the amendment could have allowed chemical facilities at U.S. seaports that are now regulated by the Coast Guard to be exempt from meeting other security requirements in the bill. "It would create an unfair and unequal playing field," she said.

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