OMBWATCH, September 26, 2006
Last night, the Homeland Security Appropriations Conference Committee struck a deal to attach chemical security language to the FY 2007 DHS spending bill. The language, agreed upon by Rep. Peter King (R-NY) and Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) last week, is a retreat from stronger, bipartisan bills pending in both houses and, according to environmental groups, “turns a blind eye to removing thousands of people from harm’s way with off-the-shelf technologies.” News of the agreement quickly met with strong criticism from members of Congress and public interest groups.
On Sept. 22, House Democrats on both the Energy and Commerce and Homeland Security committees sent a letter to House leaders and appropriators, urging them to reject the King-Collins proposal, which they called “inadequate chemical security measures promoted by the chemical industry.” According to Rep. Edward Markey (D-MA), an author of the letter, “[k]ey homeland security protections against chemical disasters are being swept aside in favor of a rider drafted in consultation with industry.”
Recently, the House Homeland Security Committee approved a strong bipartisan chemical security bill (H.R. 5695) that includes provisions that would require high-risk facilities to implement safer technologies when feasible, and ensure that states are not pre-empted from adopting stronger chemical security protections. The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee had also passed chemical security legislation, (S. 2145), which was weaker than the bipartisan House bill, but far stronger than the King-Collins agreement.
Public interest and environmental organizations, including OMB Watch, have also called for chemical security legislation to make information available to the public so that communities can understand and minimize the risks they face. This call for disclosure has faced strong opposition from the chemical industry. The King-Collins agreement appears to have taken a cue from industry, ensuring “vulnerability assessments, site security plan, and other security related information shall be given protections from public disclosure” and thus ensuring the agreement will provide little, if any, public accountability.
In a Sept. 22 statement, Greenpeace outlined ten reasons why the King-Collins chemical security proposal fails to protect communities. Among them were the fact that the plan specifically exempts approximately 3,000 drinking water and waste water facilities, keeps DHS from requiring safer technologies, and fails to preserve state and local government’s authority to set stronger security standards than the federal government (such as those currently in place in New Jersey).
The process by which the King-Collins proposal side-stepped open negotiations has received criticism equal to that leveled at the agreement’s content. A Sept. 25 New York Times editorial noted, “The Senate and the House spent many months carefully developing bipartisan chemical plant security bills.” But instead of building on these efforts and seeing them through, The Times complains, “whatever gets done about chemical plant security will apparently be decided behind closed doors.”
The House-Senate Conference Committee is expected to vote later this week on the Homeland Security appropriations bill. In the meantime, chemical security supporters continue to adamantly call on appropriators to oppose industry-supported loopholes (like the King-Collins agreement) that negate the purpose of meaningful chemical security legislation — such as H.R. 5695 – namely, to secure the tens of thousands of hazardous U.S. facilities and to protect communities nationwide.