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Obama Loss Could Doom Needed Chemical Security Upgrades: Former Bush EPA Chief
WASHINGTON – A former Republican head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency suggested on Tuesday that it could be difficult for the organization to establish new chemical security regulations if President Obama is not re-elected this year (see GSN, May 25).
As EPA administrator during the early years of the Bush administration, Christine Todd Whitman sought to use the agency’s authority under the “general duty clause” of the Clean Air Act to create regulations that would force industrial chemical facilities to make certain security upgrades meant to make them less vulnerable to potential terrorist attacks. During a conference call with reporters, Whitman said the idea was quashed by the Bush White House, which favored an ultimately unsuccessful approach to the issue that would have required Congress to pass new legislation.
In recent months Whitman has joined a broad coalition of labor and environmental groups pressing current EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson to accomplish what she was unable to do herself: enact new chemical security regulations despite strong opposition from industry and lawmakers, particularly those in Whitman’s own party. Many Republicans have already accused the agency under Obama of placing overly burdensome requirements on industry.
“Is she going to have an enormous amount of push back? Yes,” Whitman said of Jackson. “It’s not going to come just from one side -- although I have to admit that my side of the aisle is definitely going to be the more vocal about it.”
Nonetheless, the former New Jersey governor maintained that Jackson is in a situation more promising than the one Whitman faced a decade ago. “The differences in this case, I believe [is Jackson] has a White House that is willing to move forward on these kinds of things,” Whitman said.
She acknowledged, though, that “the likelihood of something significant happening” on the issue prior to the November presidential election “is very slight because of the political implications of it all."
Whitman, who now heads a consulting firm that advises businesses on environmental issues, noted that the chemical industry “has a very strong lobbying effort” with “a lot of plants all across the country” and “constituents in just about every congressional district.”
If Obama loses his bid for a second term, “it’s going to make it even more difficult” to make progress, particularly if issue advocates don’t work to raise public awareness of “a gaping hole in our security,” according to Whitman.
“We agree to undress every time we want to get on an airplane and yet we will not address this kind of thing,” she said. “You can really bring it home to people because there are so many communities that have seen a train that was carrying chemicals derail and have to have an entire community evacuated. This is something they can really understand if it’s brought to their attention.”
Advocates for tougher chemical security rules often reference the 1984 disaster in Bhopal, India, that released 40 tons of the toxic chemical methyl isocyanate, immediately killing 3,000 people and seriously injuring at least another 100,000, according to a report the National Research Council released last month. The study, which focused on a 2008 incident involving the same chemical that killed two workers at a West Virginia plant, has been cited by some Democrats as evidence that existing U.S. regulations are insufficient (see GSN, May 15).
“People’s lives are at stake,” Whitman said on Tuesday. “It doesn’t have to be a grand al-Qaida plot. We’ve already seen in the last few years, we have homegrown nut cases that can do these kinds of things and these facilities are enormously vulnerable.”
Greenpeace legislative director Rick Hind said Jackson late last month “gave the green light for an internal assessment” that would explore all of the agency’s options for dealing with chemical security, including drafting regulations under existing Clean Air Act authorities and supporting new legislation that would specifically mandate new requirements.
Hind said Jackson called for the internal review following a briefing by EPA staff, and that agency officials informed issue advocates of her decision last week.
“What they’re not clear on is when they can do this -- that’s the big question,” Hind said. “They admit that the election is an issue, and they’re looking also to maintain the harmony within all the federal departments and agencies.”
An EPA spokesman did not respond to a request for comment by press time.
The Homeland Security Department already has chemical security requirements -- called the Chemical Facility Antiterrorism Standards -- which industry officials have argued are sufficient to protect against the potential for catastrophic accidents and acts of sabotage.
Labor representatives, environmentalists and some Democrats argue that the DHS program is deficient because it lacks the authority to require facilities to upgrade to so-called “inherently safer technology.” That would force a facility to when possible use safer chemicals and systems than the more dangerous, conventional substances and processes that might now be in place.
These advocates have backed a pair of bills Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) introduced last year that would demand such upgrades. The legislation has seen no action in Congress, however, and even bills that have been approved at the committee level that would permanently authorize the existing DHS program without adding any stricter requirements are languishing (see GSN, March 16).
Whitman on Tuesday joined the chorus of advocates who argue that pending bills that would extend the DHS program without authorizing stricter requirements on industry are not sufficient.
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