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Chem Plant Security Gets Serious

chemical_plant.jpgThere are 15,000 chemical plants scattered around the country. A third of them are near major population centers. The estimated casualty counts if any of them were struck are utterly catastrophic. And there's no federal plan -- not even federal guidelines -- to secure these facilities. The chemical industry has been "reluctant to accept... security requirements" from Washington, Global Security Newswire notes. And, for the longest time, Washington didn't want the power to do so. "Unlike EPA, for example, which requires drinking water facilities to improve their security," notes a recent Congressional report, "DHS [Department of Homeland Security] does not have the authority to require chemical facilities to assess their vulnerabilities and implement security measures."But there's been an "unusual turnabout by the Bush administration," the Times reports. "It is now lobbying for regulations that senior administration officials worked privately to block shortly after the 2001 attacks, saying then that voluntary measures would be sufficient."

In his speech Tuesday, at a forum sponsored by George Washington University and the American Chemistry Council, a trade group, [DHS secretary Michael Chertoff] said the regulations should be most stringent for plants that, because of the amount and danger of their chemical stockpiles or their proximity to urban areas, pose the greatest risks.But he said the nation should have uniform standards, strongly implying that states should not be allowed to adopt their own rules, as New Jersey did late last year, particularly if those rules were more stringent.He also said private-sector, "third party" inspectors could check on compliance, similar to the way accountants certify corporate financial compliance for the government.
Chertoff used the speech to endorse a chemical security bill, backed by Senator Susan Collins, that's currently making its way through Congress. According to IBM homeland security analyst Christian Beckner -- who's my go-to guy on these matters -- it's "sensible legislation that requires all parties to make compromises and can deliver the level of security that we need."That is, if it can get passed. Beckner "walked away from the event feeling less confident about whether the key parties are actually ready to actually make these compromises, or whether they would rather hold out for legislation that meets more or all of their key demands."
Hopefully my gut intuition is wrong here, and we will instead see a sensible compromise in the weeks ahead and a bill signed into law in the next few months. Any failure to move forward on this legislation is unacceptably dangerous for our national security.
UPDATE 10:22 AM: Read the AP's account of Chertoff's talk, and you'll get the feeling that the wire service's reporter was at an entirely different speech.
He said the government would not set minimum standards for chemical companies to follow, allowing the industry to tailor its own "so we can go about the objective of raising our security in a way that doesn't destroy the businesses we're trying to protect.""There are a lot of ways to skin a cat, and we're going to let chemical operators figure out the right way, as long as the cat gets skinned," Chertoff said...Critics said the proposal relies too much on the chemical industry to police itself."It's a lot like putting a 'Beware of dog' sign out in the yard but not actually buying a guard dog," said Rep. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass. He said federal regulations should spell out minimum protections against different kinds of terror attacks, adding that the use of outside auditors was like "having the private sector grade the industry's homework."
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