NEWS

House Passes Chemical Facility Security Standards

By Matthew Harwood

Tough and controversial new antiterrorism standards for chemical facilities passed the House last week, setting up an upcoming battle in the Senate.

Last Friday, the House passed the 178-page Chemical and Water Security Act of 2009 (H.R. 2868) by a vote of 230-193. The bill  makes permanent the Department of Homeland Security's right under the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards (CFATS) to regulate security at chemical facilities and allows the department to mandate inherently safer technologies (IST) when cost-effective. The IST mandate has created the biggest controversy, according to the Associated Press.

A main sticking point was a provision under which the DHS could require some chemical facilities to use certain chemicals or technologies under what are called inherently safer technology, or IST, standards. Backers of the bill said that would apply to the most at-risk facilities; opponents argued it would saddle smaller plants with costly bureaucratic mandates and result in job cuts.

The legislation also extends the security regulations to previously exempted public water and wastewater treatment facilities and tasks the Environmental Protection Agency with carrying the regulations out, reports CQ.com (subscription only).

The bill is opposed by the chemical industry, which sees it as unnecessary government regulation. According to Bloomberg.com:

Chemical-industry lobbyists say that letting the secretary mandate substitutions in chemicals and manufacturing processes, as the House measure would do, could cause shortages of some products.

“A particular chemical could be singled out because it’s viewed as bad in one application” although it’s safe when used in other ways, said Marty Durbin, vice president of federal affairs for the American Chemistry Council.

Republican members of the House tried in vain to amend the bill to downgrade security regulations that they find economically onerous and unnecessary, reports CongressDaily.

An amendment from Homeland Security Transportation Security Subcommittee ranking member Charles Dent (R-Pa.) striking language giving Homeland Security the authority to require faculties to use safer technologies and processes was defeated 236-193.

Another Dent amendment to simply extend the department's current chemical security regulations -- as opposed to broadening its powers -- was defeated 241-186.

Democrats also defeated, by a 236-189 vote, a motion to recommit the bill offered by Dent, who wanted language added ordering the department to consider what impact requiring facilities to use safer technologies would have on jobs in a local community.

An amendment from House Energy and Commerce ranking member Joe Barton (R-Texas) that would prevent state and local governments from enforcing stricter security standards than federal regulations was defeated, 262-165.

The New York Times lauded the House's passage of the bill yesterday and criticized industry opposition.

The House bill is a carefully written compromise that is more than accommodating to the concerns of industry. It focuses only on the highest-risk plants, and it would make them use safer chemicals or processes only when the Department of Homeland Security determines that they are feasible and cost-effective.

In related news last week, the Clorox Company, a leading manufacturer and marketer of consumer products, announced it will substitute high-strength bleech for chlorine to manufacture its products. Its first manufacturing plant will institute the changes within six months while other plants will convert to safer practices over the next few years. "This decision was driven by our commitment to strengthen our operations and add another layer of security," said Clorox Chairman and CEO Don Knauss in a company press release.

The environmental organization Greenpeace welcomed Clorox's announcement, connecting it to the then upcoming House vote. "By leading the way in eliminating the potential consequences of a catastrophic terrorist attack or accident, Clorox's announcement also provides Congress with compelling new evidence to enact chemical plant security legislation," said Rick Hind, Greenpeace legislative director, in a press release.

The legislation now goes to the Senate, which is not expected to take it up until early next year. According to Bloomberg.com, urgency over the bill has waned since Congress extended the CFATS for one more year. The antiterrorism standards that went into effect in 2007 were originally supposed to expire in October.


♦ For more on inherently safer technologies, see Associate Editor Matthew Harwood's "New Chemical Solutions" from the August 2007 print edition.

♦ Photo of the Two Rivers Wastewater Treatment Plant in Washington, D.C. by Lester Public Library/Flickr

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