Is there a new concerted effort among supporters of the Collins-Lieberman chemical security bill to fight for its passage? Sen. Collins and Sen. Lieberman sent a letter to Majority Leader Frist recently lobbying for floor time, and this editorial from the Minneapolis Star-Tribune yesterday (home state of bill co-sponsor Norm Coleman) makes a strong case for action:
Here are some statistics we’d rather not think about: At perhaps 700 sites around this country, toxic chemicals are stockpiled in quantities that terrorists could turn into weapons threatening at least 100,000 lives. At more than 120 of those sites, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the right kind of attack could kill or injure more than a million people. And in some big cities, according to the Surgeon General, the toll could be twice that high.
Plenty of opportunities to enhance Americans’ security have been missed since 9/11 supposedly changed everything. In some areas, like inspection of cargo arriving in U.S. ports, the protective measures are necessarily complicated, expensive and time-consuming. Beefing up security around several hundred refineries, chemical factories and water-treatment plants, however, is relatively simple, cheap and quick.
It’s hard to understand why Congress has let this vulnerability persist for so long, but it’s easy to grasp the current snag. Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., has derailed new security legislation for the twin purposes of helping corporate friends and skewering environmental foes.
The measure is the work of Maine’s Republican Sen. Susan Collins, and it’s pretty simple: The Department of Homeland Security would be given authority to set and enforce security standards at chemical facilities, with plant operators given considerable flexibility to choose their own solutions.
At her insistence, the bill was stripped of a requirement that some facilities shift to less noxious chemicals — for example, replacing chlorine gas with liquid bleach or ultraviolet light for drinking-water treatment. Such shifts make up a growing trend known as “inherently safer technology,” or IST, and they’re gaining favor for reasons beyond anti-terror security — workplace safety, cost savings and community relations among them. This spring, the Center for American Progress found that more than 200 chemical facilities (including five in the Twin Cities) had voluntarily adopted IST.
Now, some people might think it a good thing when a single solution improves security, lowers environmental risk and maybe even saves some money. Certain sectors of the chemical industry, however, oppose writing IST into law — and for Inhofe, the mere prospect of IST provisions being amended back into the Collins bill was enough to justify bottling it up in his Environment and Public Works committee, a graveyard for all sorts of green legislation.
The Collins bill has other opponents; some Republicans want it to prevent states from adopting stricter security standards, and some water-treatment operations would prefer to be regulated under a different law. But these are the sorts of disagreements that Congress resolves routinely.
Inhofe’s objections, on the other hand, are to something that isn’t even in the legislation, and therefore can’t be brokered. His stalling would be shameful even if this were a bill where little was at stake. But here is a measure to head off plausible scenarios in which any among hundreds of chemical facilities become weapons of mass destruction. The Senate GOP leadership ought to recognize this and nudge Inhofe out of the way.
As I’ve said repeatedly over the last eight months, we can’t afford to wait any longer to get this legislation passed.