In War on Terror, Md. Farmer One of Many Skeptical Recruits

Virgil Shockley's propane tanks could be subject to proposed rules.
Virgil Shockley's propane tanks could be subject to proposed rules. (By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)
By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 1, 2007

In 28 years of raising chickens, Virgil Shockley has had his share of worries, from bird disease to pollution. But nothing prepared him for the latest concern sweeping the poultry industry: Local farms could be deemed terrorist targets by the U.S. government.

"Out here?" Shockley exclaimed, gesturing across a rutted dirt road from his home on Maryland's Eastern Shore, toward six long metal sheds filled with birds.

But nestled in the grass between his sheds are rows of large propane tanks, used to heat the chicken houses. They fall under regulations recently proposed by the Department of Homeland Security for the chemical industry. Like many others in the $1.6 billion Delmarva poultry industry, Shockley can't imagine that a propane tank could pose a threat in that rural area.

"Hell, if it blows, you've got barbecued chicken!" he said.

Shockley is part of an unlikely group of people who have been swept up in Homeland Security's quest to protect the chemical industry from terrorist attacks.

The proposed regulations, drafted after years of debate, would require thousands of chemical-using businesses to fill out extensive questionnaires in coming months. Homeland Security would then require the highest-risk companies to draw up detailed security plans.

Industry groups and politicians are complaining that Homeland Security is casting too wide a net. In recent months, they have bombarded the agency with concerns that the regulations could affect not only chemical giants but also mom-and-pop dry cleaners, university labs, doctors' offices and even camper parks.

"Given the serious threats that are currently facing our country . . . please explain why this initiative is a good use of federal dollars," Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) and Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.) wrote last month to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, complaining of the effect on chicken farms.

Homeland Security officials are promising to respond to the furor -- hinting that the regulations will be adjusted. "A small percentage of farmers that use or store propane in agricultural facilities will be covered," spokeswoman Laura Keehner said recently.

But the controversy illustrates a continuing dilemma for the government: how to strike the right balance between safety and the freedom to conduct one's business.

"There's got to be some sanity here, or people will stand back and go, 'Exactly who's winning here?' " said Jim Thrift of the Agricultural Retailers Association, a trade group.

Homeland Security officials, politicians and analysts say the regulations are a long-overdue effort to address a serious problem. The Government Accountability Office has repeatedly called for federal anti-terrorism requirements for chemical facilities, warning that voluntary steps by the industry weren't enough.

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