Things weren’t looking good yesterday as our team headed to Capitol Hill for the “markup“ votes on the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards Authorization Act of 2012 (H.R. 901).  Rep. Dan Lungren (R-CA) authored the bill and chairs the Subcommittee on Cybersecurity, Infrastructure Protection, and Security Technologies that scheduled the votes. This is the bill that Rep. Peter King supported last month that preserves dangerous security gaps, and continues to allow the chemical industry to gamble with the safety of communities around the country.

Congressman Lungren’s bill continues to exempt hundreds of chemical plants located in the nation’s ports, including the majority of refineries like those that use dangerous hydrofluoric acid. It also exempts about 2,400 water treatment facilities that use chemicals like chlorine gas. Lungren even admitted yesterday, “are there gaps? Probably.”

The biggest gap is that Lungren’s bill actually bars the government from requiring disaster prevention. Any chemical security legislation worth it’s name should contain common sense requirements to ensure that facilities that threaten thousands of people use safer available alternatives to eliminate their risks and their attractiveness to terrorists. That is exactly the authority the Department of Homeland Security and the EPA have repeatedly asked Congress to give them.

As with the security gaps, Lungren also displayed his distaste for disaster prevention at a February 11th hearing claiming that he is “strongly opposed to including Inherently Safer Technologies as a mandate.”  Lungren supported disaster prevention legislation (H.R. 5695) in 2006 but explained his flip-flop this year as a pragmatic desire to get permanent legislation through Congress. He acted as if he and other Republicans had nothing to do with killing that legislation in 2006 and again in 2010.

Unfortunately, the list of H.R. 901’s flaws doesn’t end there. Like current law Lungren’s bill also fails to: involve plant workers in the development of security plans; enhance enforcement with citizen suits and protections for whistleblowers; or provide financial assistance grants to facilities switching to safer chemical processes.

And there’s more: in his March 31st testimony, Rand Beers, Undersecretary at the Department of Homeland Security, noted that the DHS has not yet fully processed a single facility through the CFATS program. Yet Rep. Lungren is undeterred in extending this program for seven more years unchanged even though it has failed to meet its own deadlines over the last four years.

As I feared, the subcommittee votes split 6 to 4 in favor of the Republicans every time.  This made approval of Lungren’s bill a rubberstamp process. That’s not to say that the Democrats didn’t fight. They offered three strengthening amendments. Rep. Clarke (D-NY) tried to end the exemption for port and water treatment facilities. Rep. Richardson (D-CA) proposed that safer chemical processes be incorporated in reviews by chemical facilities. Rep. Richmond (D-LA) wanted plant workers to be included in site security plans. Once the Republicans had voted each amendment down, they voted to pass H.R. 901 out of subcommittee unchanged on one more party-line vote.  

So where does this vote leave us? Fortunately, H.R. 901 has many hurdles to overcome before it can go to the Senate let alone the White House.  But not all of the chemical security news is bad these days. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) has recently proposed strong chemical security legislation that eliminates the major weaknesses in the current  law. Greenpeace is one of 106 labor, environmental, and public health groups, that has come out in support of Sen. Lautenberg’s bill.

We need your help, tell your Senator to support disaster prevention legislation today.