Congress Stalled on Chemical Plant Security Bill

The news media may be filled with accounts of enterprising journalists exposing security breaches at potentially hazardous chemical facilities, but the chances that Congress will address the problem this year are fading fast.

The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works approved earlier this year a bill (S. 994) sponsored by Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., that would compel covered chemical plants to submit security plans to the government. But the proposed legislation has advanced no further, as lawmakers have been preoccupied with passing bills on Medicare, energy and the 2004 budget.

"I think the chances of bringing [S.994} up on the floor of the Senate are probably pretty slim," commented Mike Catanzaro, a spokesperson for the committee. "We're definitely going to come back next year and try to push it through."

Last year, Sen. Jon Corzine, D-NJ, sponsored legislation (S.157) that was approved in committee, but advanced no further after heavy lobbying by the American Chemistry Council (ACC), an industry association. ACC opposed provisions in the bill that would require companies to consider replacing hazardous chemicals or processes with inherently safer technologies (IST), and to implement the changes "where practicable."

Inhofe's bill, by contrast, requires companies to evaluate "alternative approaches" but the decision of whether or not to implement IST is left explicitly to "the judgment of the owner or operator."

While Inhofe's bill is less objectionable to industry than the Corzine measure, ACC still does not support it.

"We continue to support legislation, but we don't support any specific legislative proposal at this time," said Kate McGloon, ACC's director of communications.

Inhofe's bill requires companies to conduct vulnerability assessments and share the information with the government. McGloon explained ACC is concerned, among other things, about how this information would be protected.

Despite the delays in approving the legislation, Paul Orum, of the Working Group on the Community Right-to-Know, is sanguine that Congress will ultimately address the chemical plant security issue with legislation.

"I don't think Congress and the chemical industry can do nothing for ever," he commented. "It leaves them quite vulnerable in the event of a major release."

The principal question for non-governmental organizations, he said, is whether any new law will include requirements for companies to review or use safer chemicals or processes. That appears to remain one of the primary concerns of industry as well.

"We still don't support the requirement to use IST," said McGloon. "We do that every day, but we don't want it in legislation."

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