States, Feds Divide on Chemical Plant Rules

The Bush administration's new regulations for chemical facilities are meant to tighten security and prevent terrorist attacks. The industry applauds the proposals, but critics say the federal rules will block more effective state plans.

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The chemical industry is happy about new regulations that the Bush administration issued yesterday to tighten security at America's most dangerous chemical facilities. That move comes after a five-year struggle over how best to prevent terrorists from attacking those facilities, and the battle may not be over. Environmentalists and others complain the new rules could stop more aggressive state plans.

NPR's Pam Fessler reports.

PAM FESSLER: No one argues that thousands of chemical facilities around the country don't pose a potential threat. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff says any high concentration of chemicals located near a high concentration of people can be an attractive target.

Secretary MICHAEL CHERTOFF (U.S. Department of Homeland Security): We're obviously concerned that someone attacking and exploding such a facility or stealing from such a facility could pose a hazard to human life in a dense urban area. And that's something we want to be very focused upon.

FESSLER: Chemical facilities will now be required to provide the federal government with details of their operations. Those facilities believed posed the highest risk - an estimated 7,000 - will then be required to come up with plans to meet new security standards.

Secretary CHERTOFF: Standards about how long and how robustly you secure the perimeter and the critical target. How you control your access. How you deter and prevent theft to potentially dangerous chemicals. And how you prevent internal sabotage.

FESSLER: Those companies that don't comply will face costly fines, or even a shutdown of the facility. Chertoff called the new standards tough, but that's not what they're saying in New Jersey.

Senator FRANK LAUTENBERG (Democrat, New Jersey): I would say in the vernacular of New Jersey - that's baloney.

FESSLER: Frank Lautenberg is the state's senior Democratic senator. He notes that New Jersey has the most aggressive chemical plant security program in the nation, and that the new rules could derail those efforts.

Sen. LAUTENBERG: The federal government wants that you serve state's rights to make their states safer than the program outlined by DHS. It's unconscionable.

FESSLER: Chertoff says the new rules won't preempt what New Jersey has already done because it doesn't conflict with the federal law. But Rick Engler of the New Jersey Work Environment Council says a state has more ambitious plans in the works that are clearly threatened.

Mr. RICK ENGLER (Director, New Jersey Work Environment Council): One of the most important centerpieces of what New Jersey is doing focuses on inherent safety. In other words, trying to look at the way of the operations inside the plant work to see if safer chemicals can be used, or safer operating temperatures and pressures, or substituting alternatively less hazardous materials.

FESSLER: And that's something the chemical industry has vehemently opposed. It has lobbied strongly to ensure that companies have the flexibility to determine how they meet the new security rules without the government mandating the specifics. Ted Cromwell with the American Chemistry Council says companies also need predictability.

Mr. TED CROMWELL (Director of Security and Operations, American Chemistry Council): Because you are going to be laying out, you know, considerable sums of money to implement all of the enhancements. And you want to know that if you step forward and you've done what needed to do that, you know, you're not going to get blindsided with new or additional requirements.

FESSLER: He says companies represented by the American Chemistry Council have spent $3.5 billion to upgrade security since the September 11th attacks, and that the new federal rules ensure that all other chemical facilities will have to meet the same standards.

Mr. CROMWELL: We think that the nation is going to be safer today, thanks to the new regulations that were issued.

FESSLER: But Lautenberg disagrees. He says he'll push forward with legislation to prevent the Homeland Security Department from preempting the state programs. And Chertoff acknowledged that the issue will more than likely end up in the courts.

Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.

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