Democratic members of the Homeland Security Committee are moving to gut a key chemical security bill today that's been attacked by Republicans and the chemical industry for purportedly costing jobs and profits. That legislative retreat worries environmental advocates and concerned Hill staffers outside the committee, as committee Democrats have apparently been cutting their deals with their industry-backed Republican colleagues while freezing out unions and environmental groups from negotiations.
It's an all-too-familiar tale of selling out the Democrats' strongest supporters, including unions, similar to the the way some Democrats this year have waffled or caved on everything from closing Guantanamo to the Employee Free Choice Act to today's back-pedaling by centrists on health care.
If House Democrats accept the chemical industry-favored exemptions to the new bill, Rick Hind, Greenpeace's toxic expert and legislative director, says, "You could very well have lots of facilities that would be able to be exempt -- and represent Bhopal-magnitude catastrophes," a reference to the chemical disaster in India in 1984 that killed up to 10,000 people within 72 hours. Today's potential disasters could even be worse than Bhopal, environmentalists say, if current laws remain in force. A spokesperson for the House Homeland Security Committee was not available for comment Thursday.
Thanks in part to grass-roots lobbying and phone calls by environmentalists, the committee finished work on the bill by late Tuesday, June 23rd, rejecting the most extreme crippling amendments, but accepted loopholes that still weaken the bill. Greenpeace's Rick Hind declared, "We congratulate the Committee for rejecting the most crippling amendments offered by Republican members of the Committee on behalf of the chemical industry. H.R. 2868 already takes into account many industry concerns about flexibility, feasibility and cost. Unfortunately, four amendments were adopted that will either delay or derail the most effective security measures at high risk chemical plants. If enacted these loopholes could allow the highest risk plants to forgo the use of safer chemical processes, leaving millions at risk. Congress has a duty to close these loopholes before it is enacted," said Hind, the Legislative Director of Greenpeace.
On Friday morning, you could have seen the mark-up live streaming on the web, with some legislators explaining why they're supporting the Republican-sponsored amendments as needed to protect jobs and businesses in their states. But Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-NJ) said bluntly, "It's an attempt to gut the bill.; you want to gut and water down the requirements so they go away." Indeed, it seems that the last-minute alerts by environmentalists might have had an impact: on an early important vote on an amendment to weaken safe technologies protection, the vote was 16 to 11 against, with Democrats leading the opposition.
By this Tuesday, the committee accepted the weakening amendments, apparently to mollify Republicans and the chemical industry, but all the committee's Republicans voted against the final bill anyway. So much for the value of bipartisanship when so much industry lobbying money is at stake. As Greenpeace reported:
The bad news is that, before they voted against the entire bill, the Republicans won four amendments (aka loopholes) designed to delay or undermine requirements to use safer chemicals or processes. The four amendments are:
1. An amendment by Rep. Steve Austria (R-OH) that could exempt the highest risk plants in the country from implementing safer chemical processes...
2. An amendment by Rep. Charlie Dent (R-PA) to delay the implementation of safer chemicals processes at any plant until the DHS conducts a "detailed analysis" of the costs of implementing safer chemical processes.
3. Another amendment by Rep. Dent (R-PA) that could exempt the highest risk chemical facilities from implementing safer chemical processes if they can show that switching to safer chemical processes would reduce their operations or workforce.
4. An amendment by Rep. Dan Lungren (R-CA) that would add a second appeals process allowing chemical facilities to challenge DHS findings that direct them to implement safer chemical processes.
Taken together these four amendments will give industry more excuses to resist using safer processes that are already protecting hundreds of communities...
Greenpeace immediately launched a lobbying effort after the committee passed the legislation to close loopholes and strengthen the bill by requiring stricter safety measures before it's considered by the next committee with jurisdiction, the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
But as the mark-ups continued, it was still clear that some Democrats have apparently been cowed by intensive industry lobbying and Republican legislators' talking-points at recent hearings denouncing the new bill as a jobs-killer; these pro-industry opponents of tough oversight have also supported the current (weak) industry-written regulations and an interim law. They're also calling for making permanent that toothless legislation essentially written by the chemical industry in late 2006.
(The secret deal-making underway now is eerily similar to events in 2006: I described the industry's crafty undermining of an earlier strong bill, and the role of then-DHS counsel Philip Perry in flacking for industry, in "Dick Cheney's Dangerous Son-in-Law" for The Washington Monthly. )
As a result of the weakness of the current interim law supported by the chemical industry, Greenpeace and Congressional reformers say, "According to the EPA, there are about 100 chemical plants in the U.S. that each threaten a million or more people. Homeland Security has identified 7,000 U.S. chemical plants as 'high risk.' Currently, legislation is pending in Congress that would protect Americans by requiring more widespread use of safer chemicals or processes by chemical plants."
That's why Greenpeace urged progressives last week and this week to phone Democrats and Republicans who serve on the committee to support the original bill as written, with their website listing members to contact. Now Greenpeace is urging activists to contact members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, chaired by progressive watchdog Rep. Henry Waxman, which is expected to consider the bill in mid-July. The group's main themes are expressed in this suggested summary message:
I'm calling to urge the Representative to support a strong chemical security bill by voting against dangerous loopholes proposed for H.R. 2868, the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Act of 2009. We need a law that protects the 110 million Americans who are still at risk due to the fact that the existing law ties the hands of Homeland Security, and these amendments would only continue to do so.
As Greenpeace's alert to activists and the news media explained about the committee mark-up scheduled for 9 a.m. last Friday:
Democrats Consider Loopholes in Chemical Plant Security Bill
WASHINGTON-- In a surprise move [Friday], the House Homeland Security
Committee Democrats will consider inserting loopholes in their own bill
(H.R. 2868) on behalf of the chemical industry. If adopted, these
amendments will gut the "Chemical Facilities Anti-Terrorism Act of 2009"
(H.R. 2868) which was introduced on June 15th by Representatives Bennie
Thompson (D-MS), Henry Waxman (D-CA) and Edward Markey (D-MA).
In particular, these amendments will tie the hands of the Department of
Homeland Security (DHS), perpetuate disastrous risks to communities and
employees and burden business and government with redundant studies. In
addition, they could also exempt any of the highest risk plants in the
country, one hundred of which each put over 1 million people at risk,
from the best security measures.
One of the major problems with the current interim law in force now is that it doesn't require any use of "inherently safer technologies (IST)," such as substituting liquid chlorine for chlorine gas in industrial processes. And such changes are absolutely necessary: When I sneaked on to the grounds of a shoddily protected New Jersey DuPont chemical plant in 2006 for my Washington Monthly article, I got close to a 90-ton chlorine gas rail tank-car which could kill or injure 100,000 people within 30 minutes if attacked.
But requiring using liquid chlorine, for instance, would cost relatively little extra money and save countless lives -- but the industry and their Republican allies refuse any outside interference in the chemical industry's power to decide which chemicals to use, no matter the risk to the lives of their workers and nearby citizens. To address business concerns, the proposed new legislation as written by Reps. Thompson, Henry Waxman, Edward Markey and Shirley Jackson-Lee only requires substituting safer technologies if it's economically "feasible."
But all that's not enough for industry-subsidized Republicans -- and now the eager-to-please committee Democrats -- seeking to gut the legislation altogether.
As Greenpeace activists and other experts point out, "More than 200 chemical plants have converted to safer chemicals and processes since the 9/11 attacks. The Washington, DC sewage treatment plant switched from using chlorine gas to a safer chemical within 90 days after 9/11."
But industry officials representing the American Chemistry Council have adopted a shrewd line of attack on stiffer oversight: they favor the current limited regulations that they helped write into law back in 2006 and are fighting efforts to strengthen chemical regulation. They're particularly concerned about requiring any inherently safer technologies for the most dangerous plants. And, in the time-honored approach favored by weakly regulated industries, the American Chemistry Council's leaders are presenting themselves as the moderate voice of reason as opposed to some of the hard-line anti-regulatory businesses they're allied with. It's an approach that works wonders with an easily lulled Congress.
On top of that, Republicans last week started adding to Democratic fears of being economically Swift-Boated by claiming that the new bill would cost jobs -- although it's backed by a unique "blue-green" coalition of 50 environmentalist and labor groups. They understand as well as anyone the importance of worker and community safety, and the need for long-term sustainability for companies, in making these life-saving, cost-effective changes. As groups as varied as the Steelworkers, the Teamsters and the Sierra Club wrote Congress:
U.S. chemical plants remain one of the sectors of America's infrastructure most vulnerable to terrorist attacks. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has identified approximately 7,000 high-risk U.S. chemical facilities. However, unless Congress replaces a flawed temporary law with a comprehensive chemical security program, millions of Americans will remain at risk...
That's why these progressive organizations are continuing to support the new legislation without the industry-backed amendments. These industry riders include preventing families and citizen groups from suing companies or federal agencies that don't follow the law, and blocking any requirements to use safer technologies if feasible.
Unfortunately, activists say, now committee Democrats seemed to going along with the American Chemistry Council in backing a variety of Republican and business-supported schemes to undermine the new bill, even if they ultimately backed away from the most dangerous proposals during the final committee vote on Tuesday.
Although President Obama backed strong legislation as a Senator and during the campaign, his administration has been sending, at best, mixed signals on the new legislation that was written by Homeland Security Chairman Benny Thompson -- and that Thompson undermined in part by accepting some Republican amendments. The Obama administration claims to be concerned that the current interim legislation now in force would expire without new legislation in place, so it has favored extending the current legislation for at least one year.
In 2007, Bill Maher, drawing on my reporting, wrote an angry column accusing Dick Cheney's son-in-law Phil Perry of being a traitor for undermining chemical security legislation. He began his column by asking of the Bush administration: "Five years after 9/11, you figure our government would have already solved the obvious security concerns, like protecting our chemical plants or keeping razors away from Britney. But we've failed miserably. Why?"
The same question deserved to be asked of House Democrats on the Homeland Security Committee as they seemed all-too-ready to cave in to some -- but not all -- industry demands once again. And it's possible that with enough protests raised against a Democratic sell-out, the bill could be protected from further weakening before it passes the entire Congress.
Now the political efforts to save the lives of workers and neighbors of chemical plants moves to the Energy and Commerce Committee. Expect the lobbying equivalent of hand-to-hand combat to keep the bill as weak as possible -- and the question still remains: will Democrats cave to industry pressure?