New Jersey orders chemical plants review safety needs

New Jersey's chemical safety laws continue to improve. While federal regulation basically allows the chemical industry to police itself, this state has taken a different approach.

New state Department of Environmental Protection rules order any facility handling extremely hazardous substances to review the need for safety upgrades every five years. The rules affect the 89 most dangerous chemical plants, oil refineries, water treatment plants and industrial facilities in the state. Many of them are located along major highways, such as the turnpike, or in densely populated areas.

While the plants will not be required to implement the safety upgrades, state officials say they expect many of them will. They say the liability of having considered and rejected safety upgrades - if anything goes wrong - will be a strong incentive for the facilities to act before a catastrophe occurs.

A certain amount of chemical security must be focused on safeguarding access to properties and the transport of hazardous substances, in the interest of preventing a terrorist attack. But chemical plants must also be pressured to switch to far safer substances wherever possible. That not only defuses any threat but also reduces the danger to the surrounding community.

The New Jersey law, which should be a national model, has required companies to try to reduce or replace the most dangerous chemicals. The new rules are meant to give the industry even less wiggle room: They require companies to explain their decisions if they are not choosing safer alternatives.

The implicit warning is that they could be making those same explanations in court if an explosion occurs and they chose not to take steps to prevent it.

Critics of the new rules say that's not good enough, that companies should be forced to convert. But given the state's lack of financial resources, including the large legal and inspection staff that would be needed to oversee the mandatory changes, that expectation may be unrealistic at this time.

New Jersey should continue its leadership role in chemical safety. In recent years, it has been up to the states to fill in the void left by federal inaction, even as concerns about terrorism have increased.

Allowing the industry to police itself is inadequate. Increased scrutiny - in the form of regulations such as New Jersey's - is a far more effective approach.

As DEP Commissioner Lisa Jackson said recently of the new rules, "They are stronger than federal regulation. And you're going to see a tremendous impact."

If that doesn't happen, then the state should consider ordering the companies to choose the safer alternatives.