Bush, Industry Block Anti-Terror Regulations For Chemical Plants

For nearly seven years, the chemical, oil and gas industries have successfully fought proposals to require stringent anti-terror security measures at facilities storing poisonous materials such as chlorine and methyl mercaptan. These industries have been especially opposed to legislation requiring "inherently safer technology," a policy industry officials and the Bush administration view as both setting an excessively high standard and as leaving companies more vulnerable to lawsuits for failing to comply. The chemical, oil and gas lobbies have successfully fended off regulation even under a Democratic Congress. A provision adamantly resisted by the industry was included in the first Iraq supplemental appropriation, which was vetoed by President Bush. The House added it again to the second Iraq supplemental appropriation, but it was quietly removed during final negotiations between top officials of the House and Senate at the request of Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell, whose staff said he was acting at the behest of the White House. Advocates of regulating chemical manufacturers and users have faced an uphill fight from the start. This dispute began less than two months after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, when publicly released government documents disclosed the existence of more than 100 factories and other facilities where a successful attack would produce toxic clouds with the potential to severely sicken or kill at least a million people. Then-Democratic Senator Jon Corzine of New Jersey, a state with more than its share of such facilities, introduced the Chemical Security Act in November, 2001. With environmental groups warning of the danger of a domestic Bhopal, the 1984 Union Carbide Corp. disaster which killed more than 3,000 in India, the Environment and Public Works Committee approved the Corzine Bill unanimously, 19-0. Facing the threat of aggressive government oversight, Frederick L. Webber, then-chairman and chief executive of the American Chemistry Council, mobilized industry forces in a lobbying campaign that legislative strategists in Washington recall as one of the most effective in the past decade. Webber joined forces with the American Petroleum Institute and formed a broad-based coalition that included truckers, railroads, the Fertilizer Institute, the National Propane Gas Association and the Chlorine Chemistry Council. All these groups had particularly strong leverage in both the Republican Congress and the Bush administration because they had lined up firmly in the GOP corner before the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994. In 1994, the oil and gas industry contributed a total of $17.5 million to Congressional candidates, with two thirds of it, $11 million, going to Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. By 2002, the industry gave a total of $25 million, with 80 percent, $19.9 million, going to Republicans. From 1990 to 2006, the chemical industry contributed $3 to Republicans for every $1 to Democrats, or $46 million to $14.2 million. Similarly, at least 85 of Bush's major fundraisers - "Pioneers" who collected at least $100,000 and "Rangers" who collected $200,000 or more - were corporate officials in oil, gas, chemical and fertilizer companies. Although industry forces with the backing of the administration were able to fend off the Corzine bill, pressure to require new security measures at facilities housing dangerous chemicals continued. In 2006, the Republican Congress authorized the Department of Homeland Security to oversee this sector. That legislation and the regulations growing out of it, issued two months ago, met with the approval of the industry. On September 30, 2006, American Chemistry Council President and CEO Jack N. Gerard declared that the "ACC would like to thank Congress for their work in accomplishing our shared objective of passing meaningful chemical security legislation this year." When the actual regulations were issued last April, the Council released a statement declaring: "New DHS Regulations Represent a Major Step Forward For Chemical Security." Democratic legislators, especially those from New Jersey, were highly skeptical, however. Corzine, now N.J. Governor, Senator Frank Lautenberg and Representative Steve Rothman all warned that their state's tough regulations could be preempted by weaker federal rules. Both Rothman and Lautenberg sought to firmly establish the authority of New Jersey and other states to set more stringent regulations than the federal government by attaching language to the Iraq supplemental. After that maneuver failed, both legislators attached similar language to the House and Senate versions of the Department of Homeland Security appropriations bill, on the theory that it is the kind of measure Bush cannot afford to veto. "Allowing the State of New Jersey to protect its chemical plants from al Qaeda attacks is one of the most important provisions in this legislation. It took a great deal of effort to overcome the chemical plant lobby, but so far so good," said Rothman. "The Bush Administration should not be stopping our states from protecting themselves from chemical attacks," said Lautenberg. "I am proud we fought back the chemical industry lobbyists." The two New Jersey legislators have not, however, won their fight. Both Bush and House Republican whip Roy Blunt warn that Bush could well veto the Homeland Security appropriations bill. A recent Blunt statement carried the headline, "DEMOCRATS FAIL TO SECURE VETO-PROOF MAJORITY ON BLOATED HOMELAND BILL" Bush, who is adamantly opposed to the Rothman-Lautenberg language, declared in his June 16 radio address: "I will use my veto to stop tax increases and runaway spending," suggesting the fight over chemical plant security will not end soon.