Monday, September 25, 2006

Chemical Plants, Still Unprotected

NYT Editorial

Congress still has done nothing to protect Americans from a terrorist attack on chemical plants. Republican leaders want to give the impression that that has changed. But voters should not fall for the spin. If the leadership goes through with the strategy it seems to have adopted last week to secure these highly vulnerable targets, national security will be the loser.

The federal government is spending extraordinary amounts of money and time protecting air travel from terrorist attacks. But Congress has not yet passed a law to secure the nation’s chemical plants, even though an attack on just one plant could kill or injure as many as 100,000 people. The sticking point has been the chemical industry, a heavy contributor to political campaigns, which does not want to pay the cost of reasonable safety measures.

The Senate and the House spent many months carefully developing bipartisan chemical plant security bills. Both measures were far too weak, but they would have finally imposed real safety requirements on the chemical industry. The Republican leadership in Congress blocked both bills from moving forward. Instead, whatever gets done about chemical plant security will apparently be decided behind closed doors, and inserted as a rider to a Department of Homeland Security appropriations bill.

It is outrageous that something as important as chemical plant security is being decided in a back-room deal. It is regrettable that Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, the chairwoman of the committee that produced the Senate bill, does not carry enough influence with her own party’s leadership to get a strong chemical plant security bill passed. The deal itself, the likely details of which have emerged in recent days, is a near-complete cave-in to industry, and yet more proof that when it comes to a choice between homeland security and the desires of corporate America, the Republican leadership always goes with big business.

Any federal chemical plant law should make it clear that states have the right to impose stricter requirements to protect their citizens from harm. The Senate and House bills said this, but the rider apparently will not. A reasonable law would make it clear that the secretary of homeland security can order chemical plants to adopt specific safety measures, like replacing highly dangerous chemicals with ones that pose less of a danger to people in the surrounding area. The House bill did this, but the rider apparently will not give the secretary this basic power.

It is likely that the backroom deal will also exempt water treatment and drinking water facilities from regulation, meaning that millions of Americans could needlessly be put at risk of an attack on a chlorine tank, and that it will make the rules about when and how chemical plants must submit safety plans hopelessly vague.

It is not too late to abandon this bad deal and pass a strong law. In a recent New York Times/CBS News poll, just 25 percent of those asked approved of the job Congress is doing. Its handling of the chemical plant security issue gives a good indication why.

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