Homeland Security and N.J. legislators battle over chemical protections

Homeland Security and N.J. legislators battle over chemical protections

Department of Homeland Security memo leaked to the Associated Press Sunday seemingly soothed fears that proposed federal regulations would pre-empt stricter New Jersey rules governing chemical plant security, but New Jersey’s federal legislators last week were unmoved by promises to protect the state’s tighter security rules.

According to the letter provided to the AP by an anonymous congressional official, any state regulation tougher than the proposed rules would be "grandfathered in" as long as it does not interfere with them. But opponents to the proposed regulations said on Monday that the DHS move was meant to deflect attention away from the issue.

"This administration continues to play a game of smoke and mirrors on this issue," said Scott Mulhauser, spokesman for Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.). "Rather than let New Jersey and other states move forward defending our communities from attacks on our chemical facilities, the Bush administration is trying to freeze us in our tracks. Sen. Lautenberg will move forward with his chemical plant security measure in order to protect our state and our nation."

And Rep. Steve Rothman (D-9th Dist.) accused the administration, in a telephone interview last Thursday, of succumbing to chemical industry lobbyists instead of focusing on the security of American citizens.

"In essence, the Bush administration is saying that they would rather have New Jersey residents who are vulnerable to Al Qaeda attacks on their chemical plants potentially suffer death in the event of a terrorist attack, rather than let [the administration’s] friends in the chemical industry meet the bipartisan state-imposed safety and security laws that these states need to fully protect their people," he said.

Under the ‘006 Homeland Security Appropriations Act, passed in December as one of the final acts of the Republican-led Congress, DHS faced an April 6 deadline to finalize its regulations for chemical plant security. Draft regulations released in December received more than 1,300 pages of comments, which were taken into consideration when creating the final regulations, said DHS spokesman Russ Knocke. They had not been released by the time this paper went to press.

In March, Lautenberg convened a Senate subcommittee field hearing in Newark on New Jersey’s chemical security regulations and the ‘006 Homeland Security Appropriations Act. According to one section of the act, no law or regulation of a state shall have any effect if it "conflicts with, hinders, poses an obstacle to or frustrates the purposes of these regulations…." Lautenberg, and others at the hearing, including Sen. Robert Mendendez (D-N.J.) and Gov. Jon Corzine, interpreted this passage as an abrogation of New Jersey’s stricter chemical security laws. New Jersey is one of the most densely populated states in the nation and, according to testimony at last month’s hearing, contains some of the densest industrial sites in the country as well.

New Jersey’s federal legislators late last month passed language in their respective bodies to remove the federal government’s ability for pre-emption. Rothman introduced a resolution in the House on March ‘1 that would amend the Homeland Security Act of ’00’ to limit the department’s reach regarding state regulations. Lautenberg included a similarly worded provision in the Senate’s FY ‘007 Supplemental Appropriations Bill last week.

President Bush has threatened to veto the Senate bill because it calls for a specified pullout date from Iraq, but on Sunday, Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) said he expected Congress to remove the timeline language in order to pass the spending bill if the president holds to his threat.

"This is a victory for New Jersey and the nation," Lautenberg said last week of the resolution’s language. "We strengthened our homeland security by preserving our states’ power to protect their communities from a terrorist attack."

Knocke told The Jewish Standard last Friday that the final regulations would place more responsibility on the federal government for the nation’s security, rather than on individual states. In the event of another terrorist attack on American soil, a future version of the 9/11 Commission would hold the federal government to a higher level of accountability, and that means, he said, that the government must have the final say on security.

"The fact remains that state laws cannot and should not conflict with federal authorities," he said.

This line of thinking is unacceptable to Rothman, who told the Standard that even a minor increase in the cost to Homeland Security to oversee each state’s chemical plant security laws is outweighed by the benefit of increased security to millions of state residents.

Rothman broadened his attack on the Bush administration to include the entire Republican Party, which has traditionally lobbied for greater states’ rights.

"We hear about it when they talk about letting states talk about abortion and the possession of assault weapons, but what about when a state wants to protect its people from Al Qaeda?" he asked.

Knocke, who could not be reached for comment on Monday, said that once the new regulations were released, critics "are going to be relieved." Rothman, however, did not share that optimism.

Said the representative, "I have no confidence in this Department of Homeland Security to take the interests of the New Jersey and New York residents over those of the chemical security industry."

read more: