Variety of objections imperil chemical security bill

Bipartisan group of 14 senators sent Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, a letter stating several concerns they want resolved before floor debate.

With the fall elections fast approaching and legislative days running out, Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairwoman Susan Collins, R-Maine, faces a two-front battle over a comprehensive chemical security bill, jeopardizing prospects that legislation will be passed this year.

Her committee unanimously approved a bill in June that would give the Homeland Security Department the authority, for the first time, to regulate and establish security standards for facilities that produce, use or store chemical substances, and penalize facilities that do not comply.

Since then, Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman James Inhofe, R-Okla., has placed a hold on the bill, and a bipartisan group of 14 other senators sent Collins a letter stating several concerns they want resolved before floor debate.

Inhofe objects to the bill because it would allow the Homeland Security Department to regulate drinking water and wastewater facilities that use chemicals, an Inhofe aide said. Inhofe also believes regulating drinking water and wastewater facilities is under the jurisdiction of his committee, said the aide, who noted that Inhofe's committee passed a bill in May that would establish security regulations for wastewater treatment plants.

The aide said the Inhofe and Collins staffs are in discussions to try and resolve their differences, but have not reached any agreements. Collins, in a statement to CongressDaily, pleaded for a resolution.

"Given the urgent need for legislation to strengthen the security of the nation's chemical plants, it is disappointing that Sen. Inhofe is holding up a bill that was approved unanimously by the Homeland Security Committee," Collins said. "I hope that the senator will agree to a time agreement that would allow him to offer amendments to address whatever concerns he has, rather than continuing to block consideration of the bill."

The 14 senators who wrote Collins July 13 wanted several issues resolved before the Senate took up the bill. Among the signers were Senate Armed Services Chairman John Warner, R-Va., and Sens. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, and Mark Pryor, D-Ark. -- all members of her committee.

They called for provisions that would pre-empt states from passing stronger chemical security regulations than federal law; ensure protection of sensitive information; not disrupt the Coast Guard's regulatory regime of chemical facilities at seaports; and bar Homeland Security officials from mandating "inherently safer technology" at facilities, which may include alternative chemicals and manufacturing processes.

"The bill reported out of committee could make communities more vulnerable by allowing the release of sensitive security information to potential terrorists; disrupting ongoing security operations; and creating an unnecessary, redundant, complex and confusing patchwork of local, state and federal security regulations that would provide for inconsistent levels of security across the country," the senators wrote.

They argued that the subject of inherently safer technology is "a safety and environmental issue to be addressed before the Environment and Public Works Committee." Inhofe did not sign the letter, but his aide said the chairman agrees the issues raised in it "must be resolved before the bill should be considered on the Senate floor."