Senate Makes Breakthrough on Stalled Chemical Security Bill

Senate Republicans and Democrats have reached a preliminary agreement to move stalled chemical security legislation by strengthening the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) oversight over chemical facilities' counterterrorism improvements and establishing methods for potential litigants to access a company's security data during court proceedings.

While some of the bill's more controversial provisions remain unaddressed, the tentative agreement -- laid out in a Sept. 7 draft bill obtained by Inside EPA -- marks a significant accomplishment in staff-level discussions to develop bipartisan legislation that could sail through the Senate in the few remaining weeks of this year's legislative session. Relevant documents are available on InsideEPA.com.

Negotiations on the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee have become "fast paced," sources on and off Capitol Hill say, as lawmakers faced the three-year anniversary of the September 11 attacks without the federal government having enacted new security standards for chemical plants. Chemical security has also emerged in the presidential race, with Democrats and environmentalists highlighting the issue to attack President Bush's homeland security record.

Staff for Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), the committee chairman and the bill's author, have been working with committee Democrats to resolve their differences so the bill can move to the Senate floor under unanimous consent, a legislative maneuver that would block senators from offering amendments. Senate Democrats have threatened to offer as a substitute a chemical security bill introduced by Sen. Jon Corzine (D-NJ) that industry strongly opposes.

A spokesman for Inhofe says that if unanimous consent fails, the lawmaker may try to attach the bill to legislation implementing recommendations by the 9/11 commission. Congressional leaders have said passing the 9/11 legislation is a top priority.

The Inhofe spokesman says the Sept. 7 draft does not represent "Inhofe's official position" and "other drafts are in play." The source adds, "There could be changes that have been signed off on" by Inhofe and the Democrats that are included in the draft.

But other congressional sources, as well as industry and environmental lobbyists, say the parties have reached agreements on DHS's role and public access to security data.

Inhofe's bill, which the Senate environment committee approved on a party-line vote last October, would require companies to develop security plans based on self-conducted vulnerability assessments. The latest draft bill now requires DHS to review and certify industry security plans within five years of a government-imposed deadline, responding to Democrats' concerns that the bill would allow industry's security claims to go unverified.

Also, the Democrats had raised concerns that companies could be shielded from litigation by hiding alleged wrongdoing in sensitive security information that would be protected from public disclosure. The committee-approved bill would require the judge overseeing a case to decide whether to release the data. But the new draft seeks to clarify that language by allowing a litigator to petition DHS to determine whether the data can be released without compromising security.

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