Bill would protect chemical plants

Chemical plant facilities are a critical part of our nation’s economy, employing over 1 million people and accounting for over a half-trillion dollars of the economy. At the same time, many chemical facilities produce and maintain large amounts of hazardous chemicals. If a chemical release was triggered by a terrorist at such a facility, significant harm to facility workers and the neighboring population would surely follow. 

To respond to this grave threat, in 2007 the Department of Homeland Security enacted the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards (CFATS), placing chemical facilities into tiers based on risk. The intent was for the department and industry to collaborate on measures that would ensure the security of these facilities.  The department has done an admirable job enacting these regulations and to date, of over 36,000 facilities across the nation, 6,000 will be regulated and about 200 are in the highest-risk tier.

Authority for these regulations, which were slated to expire in October 2009, will be extended for a year once the president signs the Homeland Security Appropriations Act (H.R. 2892). Congress has the responsibility during this one-year extension to act in order to ensure the continued security of the nation’s chemical facilities and the communities around them, and create a better regulatory framework with more efficient and comprehensive standards.

The House committees on Homeland Security and Energy and Commerce have worked together for the last year to meet this responsibility. What emerged was H.R. 2868, the Chemical Facility Antiterrorism Act of 2009, an important homeland security measure that, as of Oct. 23, was favorably reported by both the Committee on Homeland Security and the Committee on Energy and Commerce.

While there are many security enhancements in H.R. 2868 that warrant mention, few have gotten the attention that the “inherently safer technologies” or “IST” provision has received. It would require a facility operator to assess whether he can alter practices and operations to reduce the consequences of a terrorist attack.  Critics who claim that IST is “safety masquerading as security” miss the point. Risk is a product of threat, vulnerability and consequences, and we reduce risk by lowering all three variables, including consequences. A low-consequences facility is synonymous with a low-risk facility and will not invite attack. Put simply: no target, no attack. In fact, DHS has reported that hundreds of companies who voluntarily undertook IST analysis and chose to change their practices to lower their risk have reduced their risk so significantly that they no longer need to be regulated under the CFATS program.

When this long-anticipated legislation is considered in the House, members of Congress will have the opportunity to cast a vote to not only bring continuity to the CFATS program but also to address the chemical facility terrorist risk in a comprehensive way.

Under existing law, no federal agency may regulate drinking water and wastewater facilities for security, even if there are large quantities of chlorine and other chemicals on the premises.  While both the Bush and Obama administrations identified this as a gap in security, it was not until last month that a proposal for how to tailor this risk-based, performance-based security program to the needs of the water sector was proposed.

The Obama administration deserves credit for working through the tough issues and arriving at a common-sense solution. The Obama approach not only leverages the existing regulatory relationship between water and wastewater facilities and the Environmental Protection Agency, but also directs the EPA to work with DHS to implement a chemical security program that leverages the CFATS program.  

While recent progress in Congress and the executive branch is cause for optimism, several important steps remain. First, there is consideration in the House. Then, the Senate must act. The one-year extension will be over before most realize it, and given the realities of an upcoming election year, it will be critical that momentum continue and this legislation becomes law in early 2010.

The time for action is now. We have an opportunity to ensure that this vital industry, the men and women who work in these facilities, and the citizens who live around them are safe and secure. We must seize the initiative to work together to secure our infrastructure, our economy and the lives of our citizens.

Thompson is chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security.