WASHINGTON – The race is on to pass a bill safeguarding the nation's chemical plants and materials — a step some critics say was left behind when Congress authorized the creation of the Department of Homeland Security.
To date, no one has thoroughly assessed the security of the nation's 15,000 facilities identified by the Environmental Protection Agency as potential hazards. Of those facilities, 123 are listed by the EPA as toxic "worst-case" scenarios — those that, if struck, could expose more than 1 million people to noxious gases.
Add to that the fact that it's no big secret that chemical facilities are likely terrorist targets and you've got one big critical infrastructure vulnerability, experts say.
"I think the public pressure is beginning to mount," said Sean Moulton, senior policy analyst for OMB Watch, a federal government watchdog group.
Moulton said lawmakers have tackled transportation security and other anti-terrorism and homeland security measures since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, but "here is this big piece that has gotten a lot of discussion but no action.
"I think it's definitely going to get addressed in this session of Congress," he said.
Sen. John Corzine is putting the spotlight on his effort to get Congress to pass a chemical security proposal.
Among other things, Corzine's plan would demand that chemical facilities physically strengthen their security and require them to investigate whether installing "inherently safer technologies" would eliminate danger of attacks or leaks. This could include switching to safer chemicals, different operational mechanisms and smaller storage quantities of dangerous substances.
It also puts the EPA in charge of regulations for chemical facility security and says DHS would have the last say in whether security plans meet expectations.
So far, Corzine has failed to get his legislation to a vote, despite trying to attach it to the appropriations bills. No longer on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee where he sat when he first authored the legislation in October 2001, an aides says his staff is working with cosponsors and committee members Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., and Jim Jeffords, I-Vt., to make sure a bill gets through.
But the head of that committee, Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., is working on his own security bill.
A committee spokesman said Inhofe likely will introduce the bill in the beginning of May, after Congress returns from its Easter recess. The senator has been formulating the legislation with suggestions from DHS officials, security and industry experts.
"It will be a mandatory program, much like the Corzine bill except the Corzine bill puts the EPA in charge of chemical security," said spokesman Jared Young.
"The senator believes this is a homeland defense issue because it is a serious terrorist threat, therefore it should be the Department of Homeland Security that oversees the actual securing of the chemical plant."
But Moulton said EPA has a big part to play to maximize chemical security.
"I think either bill would be remiss … if they didn't specifically state that EPA should play an important role," Moulton said. "My concern is that EPA might not even be specifically mentioned in the [Inhofe] bill, and, in which case, it becomes a question mark as to whether this could fall through the cracks."
Kate McGloon, spokeswoman for the American Chemistry Council, which represents companies such as BP, Chevron Phillips Chemical Company, ExxonMobile Chemical Company, Eli Lilly, GE Plastics and Merck and Co., said the ACC supports putting chemical oversight responsibility within DHS.
She added that although many companies are putting their own measures in place, the federal government does have a role in beefing up security.
"Right now it doesn't matter whose name is on it, what matters is that these facilities are secured," McGloon said. "We've been supporting legislation that will ensure that all chemical facilities … that handle large quantities of chemicals … will be insured against the threats of terrorist attack."
Corzine spokesman David Wald said aside from the jurisdictional debate, he thinks the GOP seem to not want to place the safer technologies aspect of Corzine's bill into Inhofe's legislation.
"We hear there continues to be objections from the chemical industry and Republicans about these technologies," Wald said.
McGloon said safer technologies doesn't just mean adding newfangled gadgets to chemical plants.
"It's a question of really looking at this and understanding that when you're talking about a chemical facility, we have trained engineers, trained scientists, looking at being as safe and secure as they can every single day ... it's not a simple process," she said.
Until the exact details of the Bush administration-backed Inhofe bill are introduced, it's up in the air as to which one can garner more support from Capitol Hill and lobbying circles.
"There's no amount of guards and fences that would have prevented September 11th," Moulton said, "and if [terrorists] came up with something we're not anticipating that's equally effective at getting around our preparations, then what's really going to help is if you reduce the threat that the facility posed."