Bush Administration Sits Out Debate On New Chemical Safety Rules

Worried that the chemical industry is not doing enough to guard against terrorist attacks on high-risk chemical facilities, Sen. Jon\r\nCorzine, D-NJ, has introduced a bill that would lead to tough new federal regulations.

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Worried that the chemical industry is not doing enough to guard against terrorist attacks on high-risk chemical facilities, Sen. Jon Corzine, D-NJ, has introduced a bill that would lead to tough new federal regulations.

Where the Bush administration stands on Corzine''s Chemical Security Act of 2001, is not clear.

In a move that clearly riled Democrats, neither EPA Administrator Christie Whitman nor Attorney General John Ashcroft chose to accept the subcommittee''s invitation to testify at a hearing held yesterday on the measure. Nor did anyone else from the two agencies show up to speak on their behalf.

But Senate Republicans and chemical industry representatives made it clear they oppose S.1602 during a hearing held by the Subcommittee on Superfund, Toxics, Risk and Waste Management.

"Let the debate begin," said Sen. Robert Smith, R-NH, the ranking Republican on the subcommittee and a moderate on environmental issues.

"The debate has already started," retorted Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who chairs the subcommittee and is a cosponsor of S. 1602.

Key provisions of Corzine''s bill:

  • Require the EPA to work the Department of Justice (DOJ), state and local agencies to designate within one year high priority categories of chemical manufacturers and transporters;
  • Give the EPA and the DOJ an additional year to develop safety regulations for these companies;
  • Give the EPA and the DOJ the power to issue administrative orders to reduce the threat of potential attacks on high-risk chemicals;
  • Impose criminal penalties on owners and operators of chemical sources who knowingly violate the Act.

Smith said he opposed the bill because be believed cooperating with industry would lead to better security than would the adversarial approach entailed by new regulations. He also rejected provisions that would require chemical companies to install safer designs and maintenance practices.

But perhaps the most controversial piece of the bill is the possibility that owners and operators could go to prison for failing to comply with the Act.

"This bill puts the government in the role of managing chemical companies, and puts managers in the role of preventing terrorism," Smith complained. "It would be a crime to be a victim of a crime."

Corzine defended the bill, saying he has taken a cooperative approach with industry, and that imposing criminal liability for gross negligence is standard practice.

He also referred to a DOJ study conducted last year - before the Sept. 11 attacks - that there is "a real and credible threat" that terrorists would try to cause an industrial chemical release in the foreseeable future.

Boxer noted that she had invited industry representatives as well environmentalists and industry watch-dog groups like the Working Group on Community Right-to-Know to testify at the hearing.

The chair of the subcommittee then fired a shot across the bow of Whitman, when it was disclosed that in its efforts to deal with chemical security so far EPA has met only with the chemical industry.

"If the administration doesn''t meet with all sides," Boxer warned, "its approach won''t meet with the kind of reception here it deserves." Frederick Webber, president of the American Chemistry Council (ACC), contended that his industry is taking many voluntary steps to improve security and that Corzine''s bill "was not the right vehicle to take us where we need to go."

But Democrats noted that the voluntary security measures taken by the airline industry failed to prevent the attacks of Sept. 11.

"Sometimes the bottom line gets in the way of people doing the right thing," said Corzine.

Stay tuned to Occupationalhazards.com for continuing coverage of the growing controversy over the nation''s chemical security, including the Bush administration''s response to the threat, ACC''s voluntary guidelines to improve security, and the arguments of environmentalists that there are big holes in the nation''s chemical safety laws.

by James Nash

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