WASHINGTON – Key representatives of a formerly divided chemical industry agreed for the first time Wednesday to accept federal regulation of chemical sites,considered prime U.S. terrorist targets.
Last week's terrorist attacks on the London Underground further the need to expand security requirements,said Sen. Joseph L. Lieberman,D-Conn.,a member of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs,which met to discuss the issue.
“It was a very loud and painful warning that we need to continue to be vigilant,” Lieberman said. “The status quo within American chemical facilities is no longer acceptable.”
Worst case figures for U.S. chemical plant attacks range from a possible 10,000 to 2.4 million injuries or deaths,said Sen. George V. Voinovich,R-Ohio,also a committee member.
Proposed legislation would allow the Department of Homeland Security to set chemical security standards,an action welcomed by leaders from industry associations and environmental groups. But the committee and chemical industry representatives debated how much money the industry should spend to prevent an attack.
“We can't protect against everything,” Voinovich said. “Doing so would bankrupt this nation.”
Products of chemistry are critical in almost all aspects of American lives,said Martin J. Durbin,managing director of security and operations for the American Chemistry Council,an association of 128 chemical companies. But many of the chemicals involved in chemical processes pose security threats to surrounding areas because of their inherently hazardous nature,he said.
“Security isn't new to our members,but the events of Sept. 11 brought change to our industry,” Durbin said.
The American Chemistry Council required companies to make security improvements if they wanted to remain members of the group,and spending totaled $2 billion.
The Coast Guard,which is responsible for overseeing chemical plants and transportation of chemicals on U.S. bodies of water,approved the American Chemistry Council's security requirements.
But now Congress wants to require federal security standards for all chemical plants,not just those overseen by either the Coast Guard or private groups. Durbin said his organization approves of federal oversight to level the playing field for security spending and to avoid having to meet different state and national regulations.
“We strongly believe that a national program,not a conflicting patchwork of state programs,is necessary,” Durbin said.
National Petrochemical and Refiners Association President Bob Slaughter said his organization's members see current security rules enforced by the Coast Guard as sufficient. He said,however,the group is now willing to accept national standards.
Government rules should not be the same for all plants,said Carol L. Andress,economic development specialist for the Environmental Defense Fund. They should take into account chemical risks and the size of nearby communities. Requirements for high-priority places should go beyond physical security,she said.
“A sole strategy based on guards,gates and guns is not enough,” Andress said.
Any improvements in plant security would benefit workers and members of surrounding communities,said Glenn Erwin,a representative of the United Steelworkers International Union,which includes the Paper,Allied-Industrial,Chemical and Energy Workers International Union.
“Most of the people who manage our facilities don't even live in the same town,” Erwin said.
Another concern about the legislation is that security officials would require chemical companies to use less hazardous materials in some processes that require reactive substances that currently have no substitutes,said Matthew Barmasse,environmental health safety and quality director for ISOCHEM Inc. and a representative of the Synthetic Organic Chemical Manufacturers Association.
“Without these substances,nylon would not be strong enough to use for seatbelts,medicine would revert back to what it was in the 1800s,and our armed forces would not have the modern equipment and supplies necessary to defend our country,” Barmasse said.
The committee hearing was the third in a series of four to help senators draft legislation that would balance security with chemical and economic feasibility.