Senators fight pre-emption of chemical security laws

Regulation proposed by DHS would bar states from having stronger laws than the federal government.

Key senators are objecting to aspects of the Homeland Security Department's proposed regulations for improving security at chemical facilities, with at least two Democrats saying they plan to introduce legislation to address the issue.

Homeland Security late last month issued proposed rules for regulating security at facilities that make, process or store dangerous chemicals. The fiscal 2007 Homeland Security spending bill, signed into law by President Bush in October, gives the department authority to make such rules for the first time.

The department is accepting comment on the rules until Feb. 7, and the agency anticipates they will take effect in early April. But Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., and ranking Republican Susan Collins of Maine, along with Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., object to a section that would prohibit states from having stronger laws than the federal government.

Lautenberg charged that the Bush administration and "their cronies in the chemical industry" are trying to repeal New Jersey's strong chemical security laws.

"When most of us were preparing for the holidays, the Bush administration tried to sneak chemical-industry-friendly regulations past the American people. We caught them, and now we're going to act," said Lautenberg, who was named this week to be a member of the Senate Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee.

"Pre-empting state laws, like those on New Jersey's books, will only make our people less safe," he added. "I will take every step to ensure that doesn't happen."

Lawmakers intentionally decided last year to leave the spending bill silent on whether the federal government could pre-empt state laws.

"Congress chose not to address pre-emption in the bill we passed, reflecting a careful compromise on a difficult issue," Collins said. "The proposed regulation on pre-emption grants to the department a responsibility Congress never authorized, on an issue more properly presented to the courts -- the difficult task of resolving complex questions of pre-emption."

Lautenberg plans to work with Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., to introduce a bill this month for chemical security regulations, one of his aides said.

"The immediate need is undoing or overturning the pre-emption section of the Bush administration's proposed regulations," the aide said. "We're looking for either a vehicle or procedural way to do this."

Lieberman said he is "deeply troubled" by "the aggressive and inappropriate effort to pre-empt state and local regulations that might impose stricter security requirements on dangerous facilities." He said he intends to work with other lawmakers to pass "real authorizing legislation for a more complete and permanent chemical security program."

The chemical industry, however, expressed support for the proposed regulations. "Our initial review indicates the department has done a good job in drafting a reasonable approach to enacting chemical industry performance standards for high-risk facilities," said Christopher Jahn, president of the National Association of Chemical Distributors.