- The Washington Times - Monday, August 29, 2005

The chemical industry is buzzing about likely Senate chemical-security legislation this fall, but it’s preparing for deja vu all over again. In 2002-03, the Senate failed to pass a bill after getting hung up on environmental questions that only greens think are relevant. This time, there are fears the Senate could re-enact the pointless “inherently safer technology” debate which caused the stall last time around. Sen. Susan Collins — the Maine Republican taking the lead — could do the country a great service by walling out the unrelated agendas that undercut the last discussions.

So far, staffers for Mrs. Collins are not giving much indication what their bill will contain. Queried by The Washington Times, a Collins staffer called the bill “a work in progress” and assured us it would “enhance security at vulnerable chemical plants” while avoiding “unreasonable burdens” on industry. Let’s hope the model is not the failed bill Sen. Jon Corzine, New Jersey Democrat, proposed four years ago at the apparent behest of the environmental lobby.

Mr. Corzine’s Chemical Security Act of 2002, which never reached the Senate floor, proposed to allow the Environmental Protection Agency to prohibit the use of certain types of chemicals used for treating water and making petroleum products, among other things. It called for “inherently safer technologies” — which, unsurprisingly, sound uncannily like pre-September 11 bids by Greenpeace and others to abolish widely used industrial chemicals. The bill also sought to give the EPA broad new powers to tell cities and companies where they can locate their facilities and was called a “blueprint” for terrorists. To worsen matters, the bill then proposed criminalizing non-compliance with the new rules. All this caused sufficient controversy that the bill died before it could be voted on. Even in passing the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, committee chair James Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican, signaled that the bill was headed nowhere without serious revisions.

There are some indications the “inherently safer technology” line is being taken seriously again. Among the witnesses before Mrs. Collins’ Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs in July was Carol Andress of the Environmental Defense Fund, who called on companies to “design production processes and products in a way that is inherently safer.”

We don’t know whether Mrs. Collins accepts the “inherently safer” arguments. But she has caved to greens before, most notably over Arctic National Wildlife Refuge drilling in 2003. She helped usher that proposal to a 51-49 defeat, joining Olympia Snowe and John McCain among seven maverick Republican senators who flouted the administration.

She could take a helpful cue from Martin J. Durbin, security chief for the American Chemistry Council, who showed the committee why it should be skeptical of outside determinations of what is “inherently safer.” He pointed to chlorofluorocarbons and underground storage tanks among the many ideas once thought to be safe but turned out to be anything but. Those schemes turned out to destroy ozone and contaminate drinking water.

In the current case, one could imagine any number of disasters if substitutes for chlorine to clean water or compounds to produce gasoline turned out to be faulty. That’s to say nothing of the complaints the chemical industry is registering regarding the likely drags on its business that “inherent safety” bureaucrats would impose.

It’s worth pointing out that no serious player in the chemical-security debate opposes legislation. Even the chemical lobby agrees the country needs security standards. That’s partly out of self-interest: The ACC wants to ensure that the 10 percent to 20 percent of companies that are not members are also spending measurably on security the way its self-regulations require its members to do.

If the “inherently safer” debate ends up killing chemical-security legislation again, we will have only the environmental lobby to blame for trying to insert its agenda where it doesn’t belong. Four years after the September 11 attacks, it’s past time to ensure that dangerous chemicals are properly guarded.

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