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?

"If a truck bomb came through the gate, it would need to go through several layers to get to a sensitive site," explains Honeywell's government affairs representative Chris Spear. "But the fact that the process folks in the middle of the plant see that happening immediately, they take precious time to take action and begin shutting the plant down to avoid a catastrophic event."

But while many of the U.S. chemical plants, such as Honeywell's plants, are ACC members, many in Washington worry about the plants that aren't ACC members. They're the ones that may seem to fly a bit under the radar, even while producing serious chemicals that would earn them a Tier 1 or Tier 2 rating (Tier 1 is the most serious of the ratings and includes plants that produce chemicals like chlorine gas, hydrofluoric acid and other dangerous products).

Now, it seems that a perfect storm has moved in that could push chemical plant security into the future -- for all plants, not just the proactive ones like Honeywell's Geismar location. All of a sudden, you have legislation in the Senate and the House and public support from the Department of Homeland Security and President Bush, and that alignment of the stars, so to speak, could finally allow some bills to become law.

"I think there is finally a consensus that we need to be securing these facilities," says Spear, a former Assistant Secretary of Labor who closely tracks Washington goings-on for Honeywell. According to Spear, the new consensus isn't appearing out of thin air. Senate, House and DHS representatives have had hearings and toured plants like the Geismar location to learn what ACC members are doing.

The new Senate bill, introduced by Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine), titled "Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Act of 2005" and better known as S.2145, would require new regulations for chemical plants. It would essentially be a bill of "oversight," where regulations enforced by the DHS would require specific criteria for different levels of chemical plants. The legislation smartly uses a risk-based approach, and would base those regulations on an individual plant's risks. Far from specifying how to use technology, the bill requires a security vulnerability assessment and a security plan and emergency response developed based on that that assessment.

To understand where the technology line is drawn, it's easy to look back to Honeywell's Geismar plant, where the company is using global positioning satellite technology to track vehicles transporting the chemicals after they leave the plant. It may seem obvious, but if the plant is hardened and a batch of dangerous chemicals departs the plant on an untracked and unsecured vehicle, then there really has been no great improvement in terms of security.

But the new bills really don't address issues of security beyond the plant's gates or technology issues like GPS-based asset management.

"The legislation is pretty vague in that respect," says Spear, who adds that the bill defers that judgment and regulation to the Department of Homeland Security, which is authorized by the bill to create regulations on issues such as those.

The new House bill, HR.4999, introduced by Reps. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) and Jim Langevin (D-R.I.), is practically a mirror image to the Senate bill, right down to the title and the requirement of a tiered application of regulations, and the requirements of response plans, vulnerability assessments and the creation and review of a security plan.

On top of the two bills, on Tuesday, March 21, 2006, DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff made it very clear once again that the DHS is seeking to regulate security controls for the chemical industry.