A showdown appears to be brewing over how to address the vulnerability of the nation's chemical plants to potential terrorist attacks. But the chances seem to be growing that Congress will pass some form of legislation on the issue this year.
An alphabet soup of government agencies has produced reports detailing the problem. The General Accounting Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress, is the most recent to weigh in, noting that an attack on a chemical plant could cause a toxic release that would harm hundreds of thousands of people. The GAO also pointed out that the federal government has not fully assessed, nor adequately addressed, the threat.
"We hope there will be legislation to improve the security of the nation's chemical facilities," asserts Kate McGloon, spokesperson for the American Chemistry Council (ACC). "We're working very hard to make it happen."
Over the fierce objections of the chemical industry, Sen. Jon Corzine, D-N.J., is also working hard to pass a bill he introduced, the Chemical Security Act of 2002 (S.157).
Corzine's bill is nearly identical to the measure the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee approved 19-0 last year, before strong opposition from the chemical industry led most Republicans to change their minds and oppose it. The bill never reached the Senate floor.
Under Corzine's proposal, covered chemical facilities must submit to EPA prevention, preparedness and response plans. One of the main sticking points is that S.157 requires companies to consider the use of "inherently safer technologies" (IST) to eliminate or reduce the consequences of a terrorist attack.
The bill gives EPA and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) the power to review all submitted plans, and ACC argues this could result in requiring, or forbidding, the use of specific chemicals or processes in the name of safety.
"Is it appropriate for the government to start dictating what products you use to do your job?" asks McGloon.
Nonsense, retorts Orum. "Companies remain in the driver's seat, but they must provide to the government the rationale for not adopting IST." Orum's view is that the industry opposes this provision because they're afraid it will destroy their argument that safer chemicals and processes are not cost-effective.
ACC prefers to turn into law what it requires of its members, an approach that focuses on hazard assessments, fencing, security guards and cameras. The association opposes having EPA involved in security issues, and according to a Corzine aide, industry also does not want companies to submit their hazard assessments for government review.
Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., is working with administration officials and ACC to design legislation without IST requirements. Orum said he expects the administration proposal to be released later this spring.
Democrats, who have been critical of the administration's homeland security effort, may sense a political opportunity in chemical security. Corzine's bill has attracted 10 co-sponsors none of them Republicans.
In March alone, three Democrats who want to be their party's nominee for president signed on: Sens. John Edwards, D-N.C., John Kerry, D-Mass., and Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn.