Chertoff wants flexibility in managing chemical plant safety

Homeland Security chief encourages ranking facilities based on risk levels.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff cautioned Congress Tuesday to not "micromanage" the chemical industry when passing legislation aimed at protecting facilities from terrorists.

Chemical plants, he said, should come up with safety measures, which in turn should be verified by private auditors. In his most detailed remarks to date on chemical security legislation, Chertoff called for a "reasonable ... sensible and appropriate" bill that sets goals for chemical facilities but does not prescribe specific actions or technology for industry to implement.

Two identical bills in the House and Senate Homeland Security committees would have the government regulate the nation's 15,000 privately operated chemical facilities that congressional investigators say are unprepared to respond to a terrorist attack.

Speaking at a forum hosted by George Washington University and the American Chemistry Council, Chertoff said Congress should not "dictate very specific ways in which security has to be achieved but rather pass legislation that takes advantage of the adaptability, initiative and ingenuity" of the industry. Legislation should "reward those taking steps on a voluntary basis."

He said Congress should consider allowing auditors, contracted by the Homeland Security Department, to verify security plans. He also said the industry should not be required to use chemicals that pose less public risk if they are released. We should "not allow our focus on security to be a surrogate" for achieving environmental goals, he said.

Chertoff advocated ranking facilities based on their level of risk, a system that is mandated in the two bills: one introduced in December by Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairwoman Susan Collins, R-Maine, and ranking member Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., and the other introduced last week by Reps. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., and Jim Langevin, D-R.I.

Chertoff said he will work with Collins and Lieberman to "see if we can make some adjustments." The bills would authorize the Homeland Security Department to set security standards and to shut down a high-risk facility if it fails to meet those standards.

Standards would be determined by several factors, including the type and quantity of chemicals housed and the facility's proximity to populated areas. Congressional aides said Tuesday at the forum that the bills give industry flexibility in meeting those standards.

"So, we are not telling facilities -- and DHS would not have the authority -- to tell facilities prescriptively" how to meet those standards, said Allison Boyd, Republican counsel for the Senate Homeland Security Committee.

There is no timeline set for future action for either bill. "We have marching orders to move on it," said Chris Beck, a critical infrastructure specialist for the House Homeland Security Committee.

The Senate committee held four hearings last year on chemical security but a markup tentatively planned for last fall was set aside to focus on the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Continued focus on the impact of those hurricanes and the recent controversy over the proposed control of U.S. ports by a Dubai-based company also has stalled congressional consideration of chemical security legislation this year.

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