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Chemical security legislation moves slowly.

Among the new laws passed in the years following the 9/11 attacks, chemical plant security has so far been left out. Legislation to harden such facilities has been introduced every year since 2001, but the bills have gone nowhere.

Authority over chemical plants shifted from the Environmental Protection Agency to the Department of Homeland Security. However, that "authority" is almost nonexistent, according to a Government Accountability Office report.

DHS has identified 3,400 facilities as posing possible hazards to the public. It was tasked in 2003 with writing a chemical sector-specific plan to assess vulnerabilities and develop programs to prevent, deter, mitigate attacks as well as recovery plans if a plant should come under attack. So far, the report is unfinished, and DHS does not have a timetable for when it will be released.

And even if it did have a report in hand, the department does not have congressionally mandated authority to enforce any actions.

"[DHS] has relied primarily on the industry's voluntary security efforts," the report said. "However, the extent to which companies are addressing security is unclear."

DHS lacks the authority to require chemical facilities to implement security plans and its representatives could not enter a facility without the company's permission to inspect or enforce regulations.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, chairwoman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, and the ranking Democrat, Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, introduced in December the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Act of 2005, the latest draft legislation to address these shortfalls. As of April, the bill had not been marked up. The committee has been preoccupied with Hurricane Katrina, holding 21 hearings since September.

Among the potential sticking points is a requirement that the chemical industry develop safer chemicals and technologies that would lessen the risk to the general public if an accident or terrorist attack should occur. The draft legislation does not include such a provision, while the GAO recommends that it should.

OMB Watch, an nonpartisan group devoted to keeping tabs on the Office of Management and Budget, called the bill weak and criticized a clause that would allow the federal legislation to supercede state laws. New Jersey passed strict laws on chemical plant security last year, the only state to have done so.

"The federal legislation should be a floor, not a ceiling, for chemical security, thereby allowing states to enact stronger chemical security protections as they see fit," OMB Watch said.

DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff disagreed with those who have said nothing will be accomplished in an election year.

"I refuse to simply abdicate the field this year and say, well, we're going to have to wait until after the election to get serious again;' he said in a speech to the American Chemistry Council.
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Title Annotation:SECURITY BEAT: Homeland Defense Briefs
Author:Maqnuson, Stew
Publication:National Defense
Date:May 1, 2006
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