Senate Committee Approves Leaving Millions at Unnecessary Risk

Yesterday the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee (HSGAC) failed to take action to protect the public, instead choosing to let millions of Americans remain at unnecessary risk of chemical disasters. The committee members chose to gut a House-passed bill that would have reduced the consequences of a terrorist attack on chemical plants and water treatment facilities. The committee also refused to consider a similar bill from Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ). Both the House bill and the Lautenberg bill would have protected workers and communities by driving the adoption of safer, cost effective technologies that eliminate the threat of an intentionally released cloud of poison gas from a chemical plant.

Almost nine years after terrorists made a mockery of conventional security measures on 9/11, the HSGAC senators continue to do the chemical industry's bidding and block measures that would actually eliminate threats. In a unanimous vote, the committee extended for three years an existing, wholly inadequate chemical security program now housed at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). This existing program exempts approximately 2,400 drinking water and wastewater treatment plants and about 500 port facilities, including 125 of 150 U.S. refineries. The current program prohibits DHS from requiring specific security measures, including the adoption of safer technologies that hundreds of facilities have already adopted to eliminate risk. Along with these and many other weaknesses, the current program also is devoid of any meaningful accountability measures that would help ensure the program actually did what little it is required to do.

Despite committee chairman Joe Lieberman's (I-CT) flaccid and disingenuous statement of concern, he and his committee ignored these problems – and ignored the estimated 110 million people whose security is at risk – and voted for the three-year extension proposed by ranking member Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME).

It seems clear that the members of HSGAC would rather wait until a chemical disaster sends dozens, hundreds, or even tens of thousands of people to hospitals and morgues before they will act to eliminate unnecessary risks from chemical plants and water treatment facilities.

Little has been learned by the committee from the BP oil spill. Worst case scenarios do happen. The best way to prepare for a worst case scenario at a chemical or water plant is to eliminate the threat wherever possible. Both the House bill and Sen. Lautenberg's bill would have pushed companies to assess safer technologies and, where feasible and cost effective, required the most dangerous facilities to implement the technologies that the facilities themselves had identified.

We have criticized the Lautenberg legislation and the House bill for a dangerous lack of transparency and accountability. However, the existing chemical security program is drastically worse. It operates within a secret black box that conceals vital information needed by the public to ensure the program is working, hold the government and facilities accountable, and drive the adoption of safer processes that eliminate threats.

Another chemical security bill introduced by Sen. Lautenberg that covers drinking water and wastewater treatment plants is now in the Senate Environment and Public Works committee (EPW), which held a hearing on the issue yesterday. The committee is being encouraged to hold a vote on the Lautenberg bill before the Senate recess begins on August 9. A prompt vote is crucial to salvaging the remnants of comprehensive chemical security legislation. Citizens can take action and urge EPW chairman Sen. Barbara Boxer to schedule a vote as soon as possible. Click here to take action.

And be sure to express your displeasure to the members of the HSGAC: Joseph I. Lieberman, Carl Levin, Daniel K. Akaka, Thomas R. Carper, Mark L. Pryor, Mary L. Landrieu, Claire McCaskill, Jon Tester, Roland Burris, Edward E. Kaufman, Susan M. Collins, Tom Coburn, Scott Brown, John McCain, George V. Voinovich, John Ensign, and Lindsey Graham.

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