The new Congress should act swiftly to revamp the chemical security proposal slipped through by the president at year's end. The Department of Homeland Security cannot simply follow the chemical industry's lead in proposing vague rules that don't do enough to lessen risks.
Stronger bills proposed in the last Republican-controlled Congress never made it to a vote. Instead, lawmakers used a Homeland Security appropriations bill to end a fruitless five-year chemical security debate by telling the White House to come up with new rules. The rules proposed just before Christmas mimic industry suggestions -- and impose vague standards softer than the rules already set by some more responsible states, led by New Jersey.
The chemical industry, while claiming it wants to be regulated and adhere to federal standards, has kept meaningful federal legislation from passing. After years of industry lobbying, Congress whittled strong proposals down to a weak two-page security chemical rider, and the Department of Homeland Security seized the chance to be mediocre. The new Homeland Security rules have to be finalized by April 4, and currently only require a yet-undefined list of plants to develop their own plans to meet a menu of 20 "risk-based performance standards."
If Homeland Security is to do more than wield a rubber stamp for those plans, it needs a more tightly regulated process. It also needs rules that speed plant process transitions to safer chemicals that pose less risk of use by terrorists or danger if spread during an attack on a chemical plant -- a prime concern for areas, like this one, that have concentrations of chemical plants.
And it needs standards that at least match tougher state rules. The current administration proposal not only goes out of its way to avoid discussing chemicals, it includes pre-emption language indicating states cannot pass stronger chemical security legislation or institute stronger standards -- a loophole that actually had been debated and rejected by Congress.
President Bush's proposal is, indeed, a coup for industry. The National Environmental Trust contends that after four years of fighting meaningful regulation, the American Chemistry Council and trade groups got everything they wanted in these rules.
That means Congress, which shamelessly punted during its last session, now has to take the ball back. The 110th Congress should again take up this debate, and pass meaningful rules that end a vulnerability to attack that has been too long condoned.