Chemical Industry has Monopoly in Baltimore Panel

by Guest Blogger

July 11, 2011

Last week was full of new experiences—I breakfasted, lunched, and walked among a horde of chemical industry representatives. 

The event was the Chemical Sector Security Summit, an annual opportunity for chemical industry members to interface and network with their regulators from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and other agencies such as the Coast Guard and FBI. But there’s a catch—noticeably absent were any folks from organized labor, environmental, and public health groups. As far as I could tell, I was the only representative from the environmental community. That means that the conference provided hundreds of industry members with unfettered access to lobby their regulating entity with me present as the lone dissenting voice. 

Greenpeace and members of our chemical security coalition have asked the DHS to diversify the participation in the event. Ideally, we would like employees, environmentalists, and other experts involved. Having a seat at the presentations is crucial for understanding some of the more nuanced material relating to chemical security legislation.

My biggest problem with the homogeneity of the conference is that it allows the chemical industry to make false claims without challenge. I saw an egregious example of this when the concept of Inherently Safer Technology (IST) came up. One panel “moderator” from the Institute of Makers of Explosives incorrectly labeled IST as “product substitution.” In reality IST means implementing safer chemical processes in place of more dangerous ones so that the consequences of a disaster will be reduced—IST does not mean substituting finished products. Unfortunately, there was no one on that panel that would refute the moderator’s claim. Our central policy concern is that conversion to safer processes is the only security measure that can eliminate catastrophic risk. This view, shared by the DHS and over one hundred labor, environmental, and public health organizations, was reduced to an afterthought in the comments of one or two panelists. 

Last November the Washington Post reported on the conflict of interests inherent in this panel. In an article entitled “DHS panel on at-risk chemical plants is stacked with insiders,” WP reporter Dan Eggen wrote that, “the committee is stacked with more than a dozen chemical corporation lobbyists and other industry representatives, who have worked to water down agency standards and oppose tougher security requirements.”

Very little has changed. DHS Undersecretary Rand Beers has agreed to give our blue-green coalition two meetings per year and we’re grateful for these opportunities. Unfortunately, the chemical industry’s panel is guaranteed a minimum of four yearly meetings with the DHS—that’s twice as many opportunities for industry to manipulate government policy.

The committee’s imbalance is allowed to continue because of the inherent weakness in the current chemical security law. As a result, the DHS is dependant on the chemical industry’s cooperation in voluntarily providing information. Lawrence Sloan, president of the Society of Chemical Manufacturers and Affiliates (SOCMA), a chemical industry lobbying organization, made this threat public by claiming that including other parties in discussions “would create a chilling effect that would dissuade the private sector from sharing concerns and information about security issues.” Sloan’s complaint could be easily resolved by establishing separate channels for plant managers and other facility representatives to share sensitive information. Industry is holding this advisory committee hostage by threatening to withhold security information from the government if the group’s makeup includes all stakeholders.

The conference took place in Baltimore, just shy of the tenth anniversary of the freight train tunnel fire that paralyzed the city for five days with toxic smoke.  

Greenpeace and our chemical security coalition are going to keep the pressure on the DHS. Help us stop the chemical industry from gambling with our safety. Call your Senator and Representative and support safer alternative process requirements to prevent disasters.

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