The potential for catastrophe in the event of a terrorist assault on a chemical plant is real, according to EPA, which has estimated a chemical release from any of 125 U.S. chemical facilities would put at least 1 million people at risk. Another 700 facilities put at least 100,000 at risk, while 3,000 facilities put at least 1,000 people at risk.
The committee's unanimous bipartisan support for the Chemical Safety Act, S.1602, bodes well for final passage of the measure by the full Senate, though it is not yet clear whether the bill will soon become law.
In an interview after the committee's meeting, the sponsor of the legislation, Sen. Jon Corzine, D-NJ, said the Bush administration "has not been explicit at this stage" about whether it supports the Chemical Safety Act.
However, Corzine quoted President Bush's Director of the Office of Homeland Security, Tom Ridge, as stating, "the nation's enemies see chemical facilities as targets," and "there have been reports validating security deficiencies at dozens and dozens of those."
Although the Republican-controlled House has not yet introduced companion legislation to the chemical safety bill, "it will be introduced quickly after this," Corzine predicted.
While it does not oppose Corzine's bill, the American Chemistry Council (ACC), an industry group, is working to modify the legislation.
"Our primary concern is that Congress not slow down or stop ongoing progress by our members to make their facilities as safe and secure as possible," said ACC director of communications Chris Vanden Heuvel in an interview after the committee meeting. He said it is encouraging that there is clear bipartisan support to improve the legislation and he also hoped companies would receive credit for measures already taken to beef up site security.
Under the Corzine bill, companies would be required to submit security plans to EPA by March of 2005, while ACC members are required to implement ACC-approved plans by December of 2003.
During the committee's discussion of the bill, Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., worried that the Corzine bill might "stop industry efforts dead in their tracks."
ACC's new security code emphasizes improvements to the physical security and security procedures at plants." Corzine's bill provides stronger incentives for companies to substitute safer chemicals, plant designs and processes.
In addition, most chemical plants that are potential targets of terrorist attacks are not ACC members, and so they may be taking little or no action to improve security. "Of the 15,000 sites covered by the Corzine bill, 1,000 are ACC members," said Vanden Heuvel.