by Kate Smolski

June 19, 2008

In Washington, you never know who you might run in to, including the rich and powerful. On my way home from work recently, I stopped at Olsson’s Books to return some DVD rentals. I was immediately struck by the long lines at the registers.  The last time I’d seen such a crowd was for a book signing by Kristen Breitweiser.  Kristen is one of the 9/11 widows who fought for the 9/11 Commission report. Her book, Wake-Up Call, is a moving account of the loss of her husband at the World Trade Center and how she became a leading voice for holding our leaders accountable.  She has also joined Greenpeace in urging Congress to require U.S. chemical plants to convert to safer chemicals and processes to prevent them from becoming targets of terrorism.

As I scanned the crowd, one face jumped out at me, Michael Chertoff, the Secretary of the Homeland Security Department. He was waiting on line with an armful of books. The reason for the crowd was more mundane, a 50%-off-everything sale because the store is about to close.

My mind raced, what would Kristen Breitweiser do? I looked in my book bag and found a copy of a June 10th letter from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to Congress.  The letter was in opposition to chemical security legislation (H.R. 5577) adopted by the Homeland Security Committee in March. The DHS letter also mirrored the chemical industry’s lobbying agenda.

Knowing Chertoff had been criticized for a lack of accountability in the wake of the devastation of New Orleans after Katrina, I decided to appeal to his self-professed independence. After he completed his purchases I introduced myself and showed him the letter and asked him to reconsider his opposition to this critical legislation.

As Chertoff looked at the letter he clearly recognized it as well as the difficulty in defending it.  He abruptly said, "if you want to talk to me, you’ll have to go through channels…I don’t do DRIVE-BYS." I could see why he’d want to avoid a public debate about his position but comparing my question to a "drive-by," especially in D.C., was way out of proportion.  So I said, "Sorry but as a taxpayer I’m concerned about the millions of Americans at risk from poison gas release due to a terrorist attack or accident at any one of 100 U.S. chemical plants."  He then seemed to realize he may have over reacted and said, "what’s holding up the legislation is not me but a rivalry between two congressional Committees" and then he walked away.

However passing the buck is not a sufficient answer. At a June 12th hearing, the House Environment and Hazardous Materials (EHM) Subcommittee grilled Chertoff’s DHS for failing to provide the Committee with requested input on legislation. Meanwhile the DHS had already sent their June 10th letter to a different Committee embracing the chemical industry’s legislative agenda. Both Committees see through this divide and conquer tactic. The EHM Subcommittee expects to move legislation in July.  Greenpeace and a broad coalition of labor, public interest and environmental groups are pushing to get the legislation to the House floor as soon as possible.

On June 17th Polico ran an excellent summary of the situation at:

— Rick Hind 

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