A former top Bush administration aide on homeland security told Congress April 27 that the government has done a poor job of securing chemical plants from terrorist attacks.
Observers said support seemed to be building for some form of tougher chemical security legislation.
Richard Falkenrath, who stepped down as President Bush's deputy homeland security advisor in May, told lawmakers that chemical plants are the civilian infrastructure most vulnerable to terrorism, and that the government has made little progress with them since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
``The contrast to the security at commercial airports and nuclear power plants, both of which are strictly regulated by the federal government, is telling,'' Falkenrath told the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee. ``It is a fallacy to think that profit-maximizing corporations engaged in a trade as inherently dangerous as ... chemicals will ever voluntarily provide a level of security that is appropriate.''
Beyond Falkenrath's statement, support seemed to be growing for a more vigorous government role, ending several years of political deadlock. Committee Chair Susan Collins, R-Maine, said after the hearing she was ``inclined'' to favor strong federal legislation, and Homeland Security Chief Michael Chertoff recently said the administration may support a government role.
What exactly that role would be, however, remains to be seen.
Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, said he supported federal action, but said it should be narrowly focused on security issues, and not drag in environmental or other concerns, to avoid burdening chemical companies.
Several speakers suggested how the government approach should be structured, including having the Department of Homeland Security inspect facilities and create standards.
Falkenrath said DHS should set up a tiered system, with tougher regulations on companies that use more dangerous chemicals so they have incentives to use safer materials. He also said there should be very severe penalties for noncompliance, at least as strict as those in the Sarbanes-Oxley Act for financial reporting.
Carolyn Merritt, chairwoman of the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, said her agency's investigations have revealed serious gaps in preparedness of emergency personnel and companies, and she advocated a stronger government role.
Voinovich and others on the committee praised the voluntary security programs set up by the chemical industry, but others, like Sen. Jon Corzine, D-N.J., said that not all companies are following those standards.
A report released at the hearing from the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office estimated that about 1,100 of the 15,000 facilities that use dangerous chemicals are part of voluntary efforts by the American Chemistry Council and others.
And the report said federal laws come up short: Only about one-sixth of those 15,000 facilities are covered by federal security requirements.
ACC spokeswoman Kate McGloon said the group's members have spent $2 billion on security since 9/11, and she said ACC, based in Arlington, Va., supports federal legislation that would establish national standards, require all facilities to develop plans and give the federal government oversight. That would create a level playing field for all of the industry, she said.
Robert McArver, director of government relations for the Synthetic Organic Chemical Manufacturers Association in Washington, said industry would not want to see provisions that mandated ``inherently safer technology'' for chemical plants, along the lines of what Corzine has advocated in the past.