Prospects for chemical security legislation in Congress seem to be picking up, although lawmakers still are undecided on one of the critical questions: What role should government play in pushing industry to use less-toxic chemicals?
Discussion about mandating so-called ``inherently safer technologies'' took up much of a July 13 Senate hearing, called by lawmakers who want to move quickly to draft chemical industry anti-terrorism legislation.
Support has been building in recent months for passing federal legislation, with lawmakers, the industry and the Bush administration all saying they support Washington setting security standards for chemical facilities, like the government does for airports and nuclear power plants. But details remain up in the air.
One key area of disagreement is how much the government should push the industry to use safer alternative chemicals. For example, chlorine at water treatment plants might be replaced with sodium hypochlorite. Advocates say physical security can always be penetrated, so it makes sense to look at chemicals that reduce the danger of turning a factory into a massive bomb.
But industry officials said the government should be careful of such mandates. Martin Durbin, managing director of security and operations with the American Chemistry Council in Arlington, Va., questioned whether homeland security officials have the expertise to weigh all the issues surrounding chemical use.
``Fundamentally, ACC has been dubious of any regulatory initiative that involves government agencies or other third parties reviewing and approving - or disapproving - facilities' decisions regarding inherent safety,'' he told the committee.
Others testified before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that while chemical security is complex, government should play some role in pushing safer chemicals.
``There are some processes whose time has come, and we need to challenge those processes,'' said Gerald Poje, former member of the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board in Washington.
Environmental and union officials gave the committee examples of what they said was lax security at facilities, like temporary workers with pickup trucks carrying barrels into plants without being searched, and reporters being able to wander onto sites unchallenged and get to chlorine tanks.
Homeland Security Committee Chairman Susan Collins, R-Maine, said in an interview after the hearing that she was undecided on what legislation might say on alternative chemicals.
Senators praised ACC's voluntary efforts on security, and the trade group said its members have spent $2 billion on security since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. But Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., suggested ACC's program falls short because it does not require third-party audits to evaluate whether chemical companies have done enough.
Durbin said the group is moving toward such third-party audits for security and other aspects of its environmental programs.
An official with the Synthetic Organic Chemical Manufacturers Association in Washington urged Congress to pass a federal law that would pre-empt state security laws.
Lieberman, the ranking Democrat on the committee, and Collins jointly plan to introduce bipartisan legislation in September. Collins' committee took over jurisdiction for chemical plant security this year, after the issue bogged down in partisan fights in previous years.
``By any measure, the chemical industry today is one of the sectors in American life most vulnerable to terrorist attack,'' Lieberman said.