The U.S. Congress is considering whether legislation is necessary to better secure the nation's chemical plants. Some in the chemical industry say voluntary measures are sufficient.
Members of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Wednesday expressed their concerns about the security of the chemical facilities.
"By any measure, the chemical industry today is one of the sectors in American life that is most vulnerable to terrorist attack," said Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, panel's top Democrat.
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"In this particular area, it is believed that an attack on this chemical facility could kill as many 12 million people," he said. "It is a densely populated area, the New York-New Jersey region."
The Senate panel heard from members of the industry about their views on how to better secure chemical facilities.
The American Chemistry Council, a trade group which represents firms such as DuPont and Dow Chemical, favors a federal role. The council argues that efforts by several states to draw up their own chemical security laws could create a confusing hodgepodge of regulations.
"I'm here to repeat and continue the call we made for more than two years now, and that is the need for legislation that will set mandatory national standards for security at chemical facilities and provide the necessary regulatory authority to the Department of Homeland Security that will ensure this critical part of our national infrastructure is protected," announced Martin Durbin, the managing director of Security and Operations at the council.
Some in the industry argue that there should be a tiered approach to security standards because some chemical plants deal with more toxic substances than other facilities do.
Senator George Voinovich, a Republican from Ohio, another state with many chemical plants, agrees.
"Federal action should be based on risk and vulnerability; in other words, security considerations should be based on factors such as potential for adverse economic impact and serious loss of life," he said. "A one-size fits all approach will not work for chemical security."
Bob Slaughter, president of the National Petrochemical and Refiners Association, questions whether legislation is necessary at all. He notes that chemical companies have voluntarily implemented security measures, including installing more surveillance equipment, upgrading the training of security teams and cataloguing on-site chemicals.
"We do not oppose reasonable chemical security legislation and regulation," he said. "However, the existing system we believe is working well and care must be taken to do no harm to current efforts in fashioning their ultimate product."
But many smaller chemical companies have resisted voluntary security arrangements. Hence, the need for federal legislation, argues Carol Andress of Environmental Defense, a non-profit advocacy group.
"Safety cannot be voluntary," she said. "The issue is too important, and the market mechanisms are simply inadequate."
The Bush administration concluded as much recently, after long supporting the chemical industry's proposals for voluntary security precautions.
The Homeland Security Department last month determined that entirely voluntary efforts of companies alone would not adequately address security for the entire industry. It is now endorsing mandatory requirements for greater security at chemical facilities.