Administration Wants Chemical Security Regulation

In Senate testimony on June 15, a Bush administration official for the first time clearly endorsed mandatory security requirements for chemical sites and acknowledged that voluntary industry efforts alone are insufficient to protect public health and the economy.

At a hearing called by the Senate Committee on Homeland Security, Robert Stephan, assistant secretary for infrastructure protection in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), outlined the principles the administration believes should guide chemical security regulation:

  • Rules must be based on risk assessments, with the most scrutiny given to sites that, if attacked, could endanger the greatest number of lives or have the greatest economic impact;
  • Facility security should be based on performance standards that allow facilities flexibility in selecting appropriate site-specific security measures;
  • Regulation should recognize and build on the progress already made by responsible companies.

"The clear statement from the administration that it supports new legislation and will work with this committee to draft a bill is a welcome and appreciated development," said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who chairs the committee. While Collins welcomed as a "first step," the administration's "acknowledgment that current laws are inadequate," she also said she had hoped for more detail on what specific authority the administration believes is needed.

"For in the case of chemical security legislation, the devil truly will be in the details," she added.

Democrat committee members pressed Stephan on some of those details. Noting the administration has always professed support for chemical security legislation, ranking Democrat Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., asked how the new DHS position differed from what he called previous inaction.

Stephan replied that while for 2 years the administration has expressed a willingness to work with Congress on the issue, "there are two key differences I bring to the table today."

First, the administration now has a clear understanding of what voluntary efforts have and have not accomplished. "Added to that, 2 years ago we did not have the risk assessment tools, the science and the technology were just not there."

Lieberman then asked what voluntary approaches to chemical security methods were not accomplishing that the administration hoped would be solved by legislation.

Stephan said DHS believes, "about 20 percent of chemical industry capacity we consider to be high risk is not participating in any measurable voluntary program." New rules would require the sites that are not participating in voluntary programs to address the security problem.

In addition, DHS wants to be able to measure existing voluntary efforts to ensure they are appropriate and to sustain these efforts as memories of the 9/11 terrorist attacks fade.

One critical question left unanswered at the hearing is whether, in addition to security measures, the administration will support legislation mandating inherently safer technology. Sen. Jon Corzine, D-N.J., introduced such a bill in 2001, but the chemical industry opposed it and the Senate never approved it.

Congress has been unable to agree on new chemical security legislation primarily because of disputes between supporters of Corzine's bill and a rival industry-supported measure that mandated security measures only.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., asked Stephan whether he supported Corzine's bill.

"I personally have not gotten in depth into potential pieces of legislation that have come forward," he replied. "But we need to consider all measures that have been on the table."

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