Chertoff Seeks to Improve Chemical Plants' Security

By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said yesterday that the time has come for the federal government to regulate security at chemical plants, but that it should rely on the industry to devise its own way to meet targets and use private contractors to audit compliance.

Addressing an American Chemistry Council forum, Chertoff stopped short of endorsing a Senate bill that would authorize his department to shut down high-risk plants that fail to submit adequate security plans. But he backed its approach of assigning 15,000 U.S. plants to one of four risk groups, setting performance goals for each category and leaving details up to operators.

"Congress can pass a balanced, risk-based security measure for the chemical industry this year" that "relies ultimately on the expertise and the knowledge of the chemical sector itself," Chertoff said.

In speeches to industry leaders and the Senate this month, Chertoff has led a carefully choreographed election-year push to close one of the most lethal security gaps that experts say the Bush administration has neglected since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

With national security a concern in Congress and industry motivated to head off a patchwork of state laws and crack down on companies that have evaded costly security changes, analysts say a deal on new legislation is possible.

"The public sector should set and enforce the homeland security standards that the private sector must meet," said the American Chemistry Council's president and chief executive, Jack N. Gerard, echoing Chertoff's call for federal standards for all industry members.

Chertoff signaled nearly a year ago that the administration was reversing course and supporting congressional legislation, but he offered few specifics. Yesterday, he said government should not "micromanage" the private sector by mandating the use of guards, gates or guns and should reward voluntary security improvements, which Gerard's group said have totaled $3 billion since the terrorist attacks.

Sen. Susan M. Collins (R-Maine) said that Chertoff "outlined principles that are critical components" of the bill she introduced with Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) in December, and that she looked forward to continuing talks.

Democrats and environmental groups, however, contended that Chertoff was offering a fig leaf to an industry that has avoided regulation for four years.

"If all the administration does is call for minimum standards, it will get standards that are minimal," said Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), who instead proposed mandatory rules, on-site inspections, whistleblower protections and a controversial requirement that industries replace toxic chemicals with less dangerous materials when feasible.

"It still remains unclear as to whether the Bush administration chemical security plan will involve more than just paperwork," he said.

Rick Hind, legislative director of Greenpeace, said Chertoff embraced industry talking points and was aiming to preempt New Jersey Gov. Jon S. Corzine (D) from further toughening chemical security in the heavily industrialized state.

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who was appointed to fill out Corzine's Senate term and faces an election in November for a full six years, called Chertoff's suggestion that plants use a sliding scale of security standards instead of universal ones "unacceptable."

"Anything less discounts the grave risk these facilities represent in our communities," Menendez said.

In response to questions, Chertoff generally backed an industry push to preempt state and local governments from enacting tougher rules. He said inconsistent rules that expose businesses to "ruinous liability" would create "a regulatory regime that is doomed to failure." He criticized as "interference with business" a proposal backed by environmental groups that would require industry to substitute "inherently safer" chemicals and processes.

The Government Accountability Office, Congress's audit arm, concluded in January that the Department of Homeland Security lacked the authority to enforce security requirements, that the success of voluntary measures was unclear and that congressional action was needed. It said the department has identified 3,400 high-priority facilities where a worst-case release of toxic chemicals could sicken or kill more than 1,000 people, and 272 sites that could affect more than 50,000 people.

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