WASHINGTON (AP) – A House panel on Friday approved federal security regulations for chemical facilities, angering the industry because manufacturers may in some cases be forced to replace toxic materials with safer but more expensive substitutes.
The bipartisan compromise, approved by a House Homeland Security Committee voice vote, would also let states enact tougher standards as long as they do not impede the federal regulations.
The bill marks the first major House step to regulate chemical manufacturing and storage plants since 2002.
Environmentalists call it a far better plan than a stalled Senate bill that does not mandate the use of substitute materials, so there is less of a risk to the public if there were a terrorist attack or accidental release.
''In an election year, when you're coming up on September, and you're coming up on the fifth anniversary of 9/11, members both in the House and Senate are going to start looking at what they can show in way of accomplishment in the area of security,'' said Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Calif., who helped broker the compromise plan.
Both the House and Senate bills give the Homeland Security Department regulatory authority by accepting or rejecting chemical facility security plans, but do not set specific minimum standards for the industry to meet. Currently, the industry – which experts believe is a top target for terrorists – generally self-regulates its 15,000 plants nationwide.
Under the House plan, however, Homeland Security could mandate the use of safer substitute materials at the high-risk facilities if it can be reasonably done, significantly reduce risks, and won't threaten the plant's ability to stay in business.
Facilities could still appeal Homeland Security's decision to a review board of officials selected by federal and state agencies, industry officials and security experts.
Rep. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., said the tougher guidelines could help reduce ''the impact of a terrorist attack on high risk chemical plants that could kill thousands of Americans.''
But the chemical industry, which has resisted requirements for the more expensive materials, described the House bill as taking ''several steps backward.'' The industry has spent nearly $3 billion in security measures since 9/11.
The safer substitute materials ''cannot be considered a 'silver bullet' solution to improving chemical security,'' said the American Chemistry Council in a statement.