Is 2006 Finally the Year for Chemical Plant Security Legislation?

New bills in House and Senate want to federalize control over chemical plant security, but can it really happen?

Drive about an hour west of New Orleans and you're in swamp country near Geismar, Louisiana. The dry land isn't particularly dry, and the most likely acquaintance you'll make in the woods is something that hisses or buzzes. It's an area largely forgotten by most humans except the hunters, fishers and those working in the petrochemical industry.

Besides the resident population of alligators, Geismar is home to a number of chemical and industrial plants. The core of the area is heavy industry, a place where chemical plants take advantage of cheap land prices and convenient access to the Mississippi River and the Interstate highway system. Honeywell, well known in our industry for its array of security products, is also heavily involved in chemical production. The company has a home in Geismar with a facility that spans close to one square mile and which hosts a number of co-located chemical companies that share products and by-products.

And with a production of hydrofluoric acid occuring inside its gates, Honeywell's Geismar plant could serve as a threat not only to the local population, but also could threaten nearby Baton Rouge, the state's capitol, if a toxic plume was released.

It's that kind of scenario that's been bouncing around inside the heads of so many of our nation's politicians, especially after the events of 9/11 and even with the recent concern over foreign companies managing our nation's ports. Chemical plants, simply put, are part of our critical infrastructure, and with the potential for harmful releases of chemicals, many would say that these plants are extremely critical infrastructure.

Thus we've see a number of bills proposed in recent years, whether it was the annual Corzine bill in the Senate, or bipartisan bills introduced or supported by everyone from Hillary Clinton to Joseph Lieberman, as well as a number of House and Senate republicans.

Most of these bills have come and gone. Some have had little support from the industry; some simply didn't have enough forward momentum and became lost in committee. In the meantime, the chemical industry began seeing the writing on the wall, according to Honeywell's government affairs representative Chris Spear, who covers the goings-on of Washington politics for the diversified industrial company.

Since 9/11, notes Spear, some 120 American Chemistry Council (ACC) members have invested over $2 billion upgrading security at their plants. While Congress met in committee, the ACC members installed cameras and access systems. In fact, a comprehensive security plan and an approved security system is part of the requirement for ACC membership.

At the Honeywell plant, over $3 million was invested in security, helped by a $1 million TSA Waterways grant, plus another $400,000 security grant received by one the companies co-located at the facility with Honeywell. Over 50 cameras went up. An extensive perimeter security system was developed. Radar was used to spot water-based threats on the Mississippi River. A robust access control system was put in place, and tied in with cameras, personnel management and the visitor system. Security was integrated directly into the processes systems -- the systems that the chemists and engineers use to control the reactions at the plant. Not only were there lots of eyes watching, but, now, the chemists watching the chemicals weren't separated from the security staff watching for threats.

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