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New rules aim to protect chemical plants from terrorists

WASHINGTON—The Bush administration issued a proposal Friday that would require the nation's "high-risk" chemical facilities to assess their vulnerability to terrorists, draw up security plans for federal approval and implement them or face $25,000-a-day fines.

The Department of Homeland Security published the proposal after the Congress gave the department the power this fall to regulate companies that make chemicals or use them in manufacturing.

DHS was ordered to finalize its regulations by April 4, 2007, to reduce the chances of a catastrophic chemical release near a major city. Normally, the rule-making process can take years.

The draft rules note that Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff had concluded that voluntary efforts by many chemical facilities "will not provide sufficient security for the nation."

Chertoff said in a statement that "the consequences of an attack at a high-risk chemical facility could be severe for the health and safety of the citizens in the area and for the national economy."

He called the new regulations, which major chemical companies preferred over tougher restrictions on manufacturing and storage, "both sensible and disciplined, allowing owners and operators the flexibility to determine an appropriate mix of security measures at their facility . . . subject to our approval."

Critics, including Democrats who wanted to force companies to shift to less hazardous chemicals, have assailed the authorizing legislation as too lenient toward industry.

The proposals call for facilities fitting certain profiles, such as those near major population centers, to fill out risk assessment questionnaires on a DHS Web site and, if found to be among the highest risk, to submit vulnerability assessments within 60 days and security plans within 120 days.

The department would then review the plans and conduct its own inspection and audit, if appropriate, and order any necessary changes. Facilities failing to comply would face civil penalties and, if necessary, orders to cease operations.

The exact number of facilities affected has yet to be determined. The proposed regulations note that many of the 15,000 facilities that the Environmental Protection Agency required to draft accident prevention plans in 1999 would likely be covered.

Also still unclear is whether the proposed rules would undermine New Jersey's new, more stringent chemical facility security law by letting DHS relax stricter state laws, if necessary, to give a facility flexibility in choosing security options.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, chair of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, issued a statement noting that the new federal law didn't empower the DHS to set aside any state laws. She criticized the agency for crafting a more aggressive position "out of whole cloth."

Commissioner Lisa Jackson of New Jersey's Department of Environmental Protection, who oversees the state's efforts to protect "a very dangerous stretch" of concentrated petrochemical facilities along the New Jersey Turnpike upwind of New York City, also expressed dismay.

"We are going to be very concerned with any attempt by the federal government to weaken our standards," she said, noting that the state's laws already have prodded some companies to shift to less hazardous chemicals.

The proposal drew praise from the American Chemistry Council, which says its 133 members have spent $3.5 billion since Sept. 11 ramping up security at 2,000 facilities, which provide 85 percent of the nation's chemical production capacity.

"We're not looking for a free pass," council spokesman Scott Jensen said. "We want the work that our members have accomplished to be recognized. And if the rules require us to go further, obviously, we will comply with what DHS is asking."

Friday's proposals were issued a week after the department announced different ones aimed at securing the transport of essential, but potentially harmful chemicals, such as chlorine and anhydrous ammonia, by freight rail.

Jensen noted that many chemicals are shipped mainly by truck, whose security the agency has yet to address.

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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