National Security Watch: Chemical reaction
Homeland security watchdogs are breathing a collective sigh of relief, now that the administration has announced that it will finallyafter almost four years of obsessing over terrorist threatsendorse federal security regulations at the nation's roughly 15,000 chemical plants. Experts like Stephen Flynn, author of the darkly titled book America the Vulnerable, had long viewed the administration's failure to set mandatory standards as one of the largest lapses in the war on terrorism. An attack on a chemical plant would have the potential to kill 10,000 people, according to government estimates, but for the past three years, chemical facilities have been on a Scout's honor policy, expected to follow a flurry of voluntary regulations.
The Department of Homeland Security is now admitting that the laissez faire approach just wasn't cutting it. When Richard Stephan, an under secretary with the department, testified in front of a Senate committee in June, he said 20 percent of facilities deemed "high risk" weren't complying with the voluntary rules. (When smaller and less risky plants are thrown into the equation, fully 70 percent of facilities aren't adequately secured, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.) Stephan said that DHS chief Michael Chertoffa man who frequently supports focusing security efforts on the most risky, high-consequence targetswould call for "enforceable performance standards" for chemical plants. "Chertoff has concluded, from the regulatory perspective, the existing patchwork of authorities does not permit us to regulate the industry effectively," Stephan added.
The ball now moves to Congress, where Sen. Susan Collins, chairman of the Senate's Governmental Affairs and Homeland Security Committee, announced that she would introduce legislation to address the issue by the end of July. Similar legislation has been stalled for more than a year in the Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee, but Collins says that with the administration's strong endorsement, she is confident the Senate will finally move forward on such a bill. "This should have happened a long time ago," says Richard Falkenrath, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former Bush White House official, calling the chemical plants "the biggest civilian vulnerability in America."
Even the industry appears to be coming around to the idea, although the shift appears driven mostly by business concerns. The American Chemistry Council, an industry group long opposed to any federal security regulations, dropped opposition to the federal regulatory approach earlier this year, when it became apparent that several states might pass chemical security laws, creating the danger of a confusing mishmash of laws. No word on whether Collins's bill will use carrots (financial incentives) or sticks (consequences) to rein in the unmonitored facilities.