House votes to strengthen chem plant security

AP News
|
Posted: Nov 06, 2009 5:16 PM

The House approved legislation Friday aimed at making chemical and water treatment facilities less vulnerable to terrorist attack.

The three-part legislation would give federal agencies greater power to require chemical and water plants to meet federally set standards, a policy welcomed by environmentalists but opposed by industry groups. It writes into law anti-terrorism rules in effect since 2007 and gives new enforcement teeth to the Department of Homeland Security over chemical facilities.

The bill, passed 230-193, now goes to the Senate, where action on a companion bill this year is uncertain.

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.

There were also objections to a provision making it easier for citizens to sue companies and the DHS over safety regulation violations and another allowing states to implement rules tougher than the federal standards.

The second section requires the Environmental Protection Agency to establish risk-based performance standards for community drinking water systems serving more than 3,300 people.

Part three ensures that large- and medium-sized wastewater plants assess security and take steps to reduce vulnerability. Those facilities that use potentially dangerous chemicals such as chlorine gas would face reviews of whether IST standards could be imposed to reduce the overall risk.

The nation has 16,000 treatment plants, 100,000 major pumping stations, 600,000 miles of sanitary sewers and 200,000 miles of storm sewers, said Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Significant damage to the system could result in loss of life, catastrophic environmental damage, contamination of drinking water and long-term public health impacts, he said.

U.S. PIRG public health advocate Liz Hitchcock said that, more than eight years after the Sept. 11 attacks, the bill "will finally establish a comprehensive chemical security program to protect the millions of Americans who live and work in the danger zones around these facilities."

On the other side, Joseph Acker, president and CEO of the Society of Chemical Manufacturers & Affiliates, said the "negative, unintended consequences" of mandating implementation of IST far outweigh possible benefits. "Risk decisions are best when made in the laboratory and shop floor by people who work in, manage and are intimately familiar with those risks, not a government employee seated in an office building miles away," he wrote in a letter to Congress.

___

The bill is H.R. 2868.

On the Net:

Congress: http://thomas.loc.gov