Panel wraps up contentious markup of chemical security bill

The bill would give DHS authority, for the first time, to regulate companies that make, store, process or sell chemicals.

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Thursday afternoon unanimously approved a bill that would establish federal regulations for the chemical industry and penalize facilities that fail to comply.

The bill would give the Homeland Security Department authority, for the first time, to regulate companies that make, store, process or sell chemicals, including establishing tiers to identify facilities that pose the greatest safety risk.

While the chemical industry praised the bill, environmental groups immediately criticized it for not including requirements that chemical facilities use what are referred to as "inherently safer technologies," including safer alternatives to dangerous chemicals.

"Among the bill's most serious failures is the refusal to require the elimination of unnecessary risks with proven safer and cost-effective technologies," said Greenpeace's Rick Hind in a statement. "Guards, guns and gates alone will not protect millions of Americans currently at risk."

The chemical industry had lobbied heavily to defeat any IST requirements. "We're encouraged by the outcome today," said Marty Durbin, managing director of federal affairs for the American Chemistry Council, which includes major companies that make chemical products.

Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs ranking member Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., has vowed to introduce an amendment on the Senate floor that would require chemical companies to use safer technologies.

But he will not have support from Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairwoman Susan Collins, R-Maine, even though the two are usually in agreement on legislation. "I think we've struck the right balance in this bill on IST," Collins told CongressDaily. "Sen. Lieberman knows that this is one of those rare instances where we simply disagree. I'm always interested in new ideas but I cannot support a mandatory IST amendment."

The committee also voted unanimously to approve an amendment by Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, that would prevent the Homeland Security Department from rejecting a chemical facility's security plan because it does not include the use of safer technologies. Lieberman supported the amendment, explaining that he does not believe a security plan should be rejected on the sole basis that it does include IST.

The committee also approved, 10-5, another amendment from Voinovich affecting information sharing, legal reviews of chemical plant security plans and penalties for facilities that violate their security plans. Lieberman led opposition to the amendment, arguing it would weaken the bill.

He cited, for example, provisions on information sharing that he said would restrict the public release of department-issued noncompliance orders and limit the public's ability to take legal action against chemical companies.

The amendment was altered during the markup to stipulate that chemical companies must knowingly and willfully violate their security plans in order to face criminal penalties. Another change to the amendment gives Homeland Security the ability to waive annual inspections of chemical facilities if they are found to be in compliance with their security plans for five consecutive years.

The committee also unanimously approved an amendment by Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., that would establish regulations for tracking the sale of ammonium nitrate. Lieberman successfully changed the amendment, however, to clarify that state and local government can pass stronger laws than the federal regulations.