Saturday, December 23, 2006

Govt seeks better security at chemical plants

Govt seeks better security at chemical plants
By Tom Doggett

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Department of Homeland Security on Friday proposed regulations to improve security at high-risk chemical facilities to make them safer them from attacks.

"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," said Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.

Under new authority provided to the DHS by Congress, the department wants chemical facilities fitting certain profiles to complete a secure online risk assessment to determine how vulnerable they are to attacks.

The facilities would submit their security plans to DHS, which would review and approve them. The department would then conduct audits and on-site inspections to make sure the plants' owners are following the security plans.

"Performance standards will be designed to achieve specific outcomes, such as securing the perimeter and critical targets, controlling access, deterring theft of potentially dangerous chemicals and preventing internal sabotage," the department said.

Chemical plants that do not meet the performance standards could be fined up to $25,000 a day and continuos violators could be shut down.

The DHS pointed out that most chemical facilities have already undertaken voluntary efforts to improve security and made significant investments to maintain satisfactory security programs.

DHS officials could not immediately be reached to clarify what types of chemical plants would be subject to the regulations.

The department is using a broad definition of a "chemical facility" that would have to follow the regulations, saying it would be "any facility that possesses or plans to possess, at any relevant point in time, a quantity of a chemical substance determined by the (DHS) secretary to be potentially dangerous or that meets other risk-related criterion identified by the department."

The regulations would not apply to oil refineries, according to the National Petrochemical & Refiners Association. But a spokeswoman for the trade group did not know what kinds of chemical plants would fall under the regulations.

Republican Sen. Susan Collins, who co-sponsored the bill giving the DHS the new authority over chemical plants, said she was concerned the proposed regulations would restrict legal challenges to the department's implementation of the program.

Democratic Rep. Ed Markey said the regulations are not strong enough and that the new Democratic-controlled Congress "will be looking to close the wide-open security loopholes" at the 15,000 chemical facilities in the United States.

The DHS's proposed security regulations will be published in the Federal Register next week and the department will take public comment on them through February 7.