On October 21st, the House Energy and Commerce Committee chaired by Representative Henry Waxman (D-CA) and Subcommittee Chair Edward Markey (D-MA) approved comprehensive chemical plant security legislation (H.R. 2868 & H.R. 3258) in a 29-18 vote. The Committee rejected all 15 Republican amendments designed to cripple or delay both bills. The legislation is expected to go to the House floor later this fall. This is the first time this legislation has been approved by the two authorizing committees. On June 23rd the Homeland Security Committee also approved a weaker version of H.R. 2868.
“A compromise acceptable to leading industry lobbyists wasn’t enough for Committee republicans. If they had had their way, chemical plants that pose catastrophic risks to densely populated areas would continue to put millions at risk for years to come,” said Rick Hind, Legislative Director of Greenpeace. In fact, the American Chemistry Council, in a letter to Chairman Waxman just before the committee markup, proclaimed HR 2868 "the appropriate vehicle for ensuring a permanant CFATS program."
More than 200 chemical facilities have converted to safer chemical processes since 9/11 eliminating poison gas risks to 38 million Americans. Hundreds of other plants together put more than 100 million Americans at risk. A blue-green coalition of more than 50 organizations has been urging Congress to enact legislation to eliminate these risks. They include: the United Auto Workers, Steelworkers, Teamsters, Fire Fighters, Sierra Club, Physicians for Social Responsibility, U.S. Public Interest Research Group and Greenpeace. The Department of Homeland Security and the EPA testified in favor of this legislation at an October 1st hearing held by the Subcommittee.
*The final version of the Energy and Commerce Committee bills (H.R. 2868 & H.R. 3258) would:
- Conditionally require the highest risk plants to use safer cost-effective chemical processes where feasible and require the remaining high risk plants to “assess” safer processes;
- Eliminate the current law's exemption of thousands of chemical plants, such as waste water and drinking water facilities;
- Involve plant employees in the development of security plans and provide protections for whistleblowers;
- Preserve state’s authority to establish stronger security standards, and
- Provide up to $225 (H.R. 2868) and $375 (H.R. 3258) million respectively toward the implementation of safer chemical processes over a three-year period.*
“Although this bill is a compromise, it is a giant step forward for communities at risk. We look forward to working with the House leadership in moving this bill to the House floor this fall,” said Hind.
Among the compromises, the legislation narrows the number of high-risk chemical facilities to approximately 107 that may be required to eliminate catastrophic risks with safer chemical processes. It also allows chemical plants a second appeals process to challenge agency decisions and exempts them from citizen enforcement suits. Instead, the bill contains a petition process giving citizens the right to initiate a government investigation into potential violations by a chemical facility. The legislation also does not ensure that residents living downwind of high-risk chemical plants will be informed if nearby facilities are in compliance with security regulations or even part of the program.
In June, the House Homeland Security Committee approved a different version of H.R. 2868, which included four major loopholes not contained in the Energy and Commerce bills.