A senior Dept. of Homeland Security official says that federal regulation is needed to improve security at U.S. chemical plants. Outside analysts have identified chemical facilities as a potential terrorist target. Robert Stephan, acting undersecretary for information analysis and infrastructure protection, told a Senate committee June 15 that voluntary efforts by the chemical industry have improved security, but haven't covered all high-risk sites.

Collins plans bill to upgrade chemical security.

Testifying before the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Stephan said, "By developing a comprehensive, risk-based plan for the chemical sector we expect to close remaining security gaps in this vitally important area." He added that "security should be based on reasonable, clear and equitable and measurable performance standards."

The American Chemistry Council estimates its members have spent more than $2 billion to upgrade plant security since the Sept., 2001, terrorist attacks and has developed a program that includes assessing vulnerabilities and stepping up training and emergency response efforts.

But DHS's Stephan said that facilities accounting for about 20% of the chemical industry's operating capacity that is judged to be high risk aren't part of the chemistry council program.

Stephan talked only in general terms about what sort of regulation the administration envisions, saying that it should be flexible enough to apply to differing facilities and focus on plants at which a terrorist attack would affect the largest number of people and have the greatest economic impact.

Committee Chairman Susan Collins (R-Maine) said "While I had hoped for more detail on what specific authority the administration believes is needed, the acknowledgment that current laws are inadequate is a positive first step."

Collins said she plans to develop a bill to tighten chemical plant security. Stephan didn't indicate that the administration would propose a measure of its own but said officials would work with Congress as it develops legislation.

There have been earlier attempts to come up with chemical plant bills. A measure sponsored by Sen. Jon Corzine (D-N.J.) passed the Environment and Public Works Committee in 2002, but went no further. Collins said that when Christine Todd Whitman headed the Environmental Protection Agency and Tom Ridge was director of the White House Office of Homeland Security they worked on legislation, but nothing came of that effort. Collins said that President Bush has stated he supports legislation for chemical security, but she added that "a bipartisan legislative approach, backed by the administration, has not yet emerged."

Thomas Dunne, EPA deputy assistant administrator for solid waste and emergency response, testified that after the 9/11 attacks agency officials looked at using Clean Air Act authority to set new chemical plant security mandates, but "concluded that a broad interpretation [of that statute] would subject the agency to significant legal vulnerability and result in protracted litigation."

Stephan said that the support for new standards "is not a change in Bush administration policy."

DHS says there are 3,400 chemical plants where an attack could affect more than 1,000 people. Stephan says that of those, 272 sites are in the top tier of risk.

EPA lists some 15,000 facilities that store hazardous chemicals and Dunne says that 110 of those have 1 million people in their surrounding areas.

(Photo above courtesy of Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee)