Labor, Environmental Groups To Request Tougher Chemical Security Rules

Workers take a pressure reading in 2007 inside a chemical plant in Texas. Labor and environmental organizations are expected on Thursday to petition the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to prepare chemical site protection requirements stricter than measures already in place (AP Photo/David Phillip).
Workers take a pressure reading in 2007 inside a chemical plant in Texas. Labor and environmental organizations are expected on Thursday to petition the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to prepare chemical site protection requirements stricter than measures already in place (AP Photo/David Phillip).

WASHINGTON – A coalition of labor and environmental groups is poised to formally petition the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to craft chemical security rules that are more stringent than an existing regulatory program administered by the Homeland Security Department (see GSN, June 13).

The groups – which include the United Steelworkers and Greenpeace – plan on Thursday to present the petition to Obama administration officials during a meeting at the White House, according to Rick Hind, legislative director for Greenpeace. The petition for rulemaking will be filed under the Administrative Procedure Act, which allows citizens to formally request federal agencies to develop regulations.

Homeland Security today administers the Chemical Facility Antiterrorism Standards, under which industrial chemical sites must submit plans for dealing with 18 areas of risk including physical protections, control of access, materials security, insider attacks and computer infiltration. As of January, the program covered more than 4,000 high-risk sites, many of them chemical manufacturing facilities.

The measures are intended to protect the facilities from terrorist attacks and catastrophic accidents that could lead to the release of dangerous chemicals into the surrounding environment.

An internal memo that came to light in recent months says the program has been plagued by a litany of management issues, including a failure by Homeland Security personnel to complete reviews of plant security plans. The memo reportedly describes numerous faults stemming from insufficient preparation of program personnel by the department, unsuitably high dependence on contractors, and doubts linked to a lack of permanent congressional authorization for the program.

Labor and environmental groups, along with some congressional Democrats, have meanwhile complained that the DHS program is not authorized to require facilities to upgrade to so-called “inherently safer technology.” Such a mandate would force a facility when possible to use chemicals and systems that are safer than those that might now be in place. These types of rules are necessary to ensure chemical plants are adequately shielded from terrorist attacks and catastrophic accidents, the groups argue.

For this reason, the organizations have been pushing for the Environmental Protection Agency to use its authority under the Clean Air Act to develop stricter rules. Their campaign has received support from Bush administration EPA chief Christine Todd Whitman and the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council -- a federally sanctioned group that advises the agency on issues expected to disproportionately affect low-income and minority communities.

The number of organizations participating in the Administrative Procedure Act petition request was not immediately available.

In addition to the formal request, the groups will also present Obama administration officials with a separate but complementary web-based petition in which Hind said approximately 60,000 individuals have expressed support for EPA action on the issue.

Following the Thursday morning White House meeting, the groups will discuss the matter at a later session with DHS officials, Hind said.

The House Appropriations Committee has also scheduled a hearing on the DHS chemical security program for Thursday. The session is expected to include testimony from Steve Caldwell, homeland security and justice issues director at the Government Accountability Office.

The Republican-controlled committee has been critical of the DHS program since the leak of the internal memo detailing its faults, and has recommended slashing funds for the project in fiscal 2013. The panel on May 16 approved legislation that recommends providing only $45.4 million for the program in fiscal 2013, which is $29.1 million less than the Obama administration is requesting and $47.9 million below what Congress appropriated for the present budget year.

The House budget proposal also suggests the U.S. Coast Guard look for opportunities to improve the chemical security program – a recommendation that has been met with skepticism from industry officials and environmental activists (see GSN, May 25).

Competing legislation approved by the Democrat-controlled Senate Appropriations Committee recommends $86.4 million for the program, which is roughly $6.8 million below what Congress provided in fiscal 2012 but $11.9 million more than what the Obama administration has requested for fiscal 2013. Even the cuts proposed by the administration are “too deep to ensure change for the better can be completed,” the Senate committee said in its legislative report on the bill.

Fiscal 2013 begins on Oct. 1.

July 25, 2012
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WASHINGTON – A coalition of labor and environmental groups is poised to formally petition the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to craft chemical security rules that are more stringent than an existing regulatory program administered by the Homeland Security Department.

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