New Jersey’s senior Sen. Frank Lautenberg has accused the U.S. Department of Homeland Security of trying to override and weaken this state’s security procedures.
He called a hearing Monday at the Rutgers Law School in Newark, where New Jersey’s governor, its two senators, and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security testified regarding the department’s proposed regulations on chemical plant security.
In December, the Republican-led Congress passed the Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act of ‘007, which included a series of chemical security regulations. The act gave DHS six months from the time the president signed the bill to create new regulations for high-risk chemical facilities.
Lautenberg takes issue with a section of the act that states that 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 ."
New Jersey’s Toxic Catastrophe Prevention Act requires chemical plants that use hazardous products to study methods to decrease their usage and replace them with less dangerous chemicals. The state applies this ruling to 4′ chemical manufacturers, which will expand to 94 facilities, thanks to a proposal last week from Gov. Jon Corzine.
"All 94 TCPA facilities will now have to review the possibility of making materials substitution or equipment or process changes for the sake of public safety," Corzine told the hearing on Monday.
According to Lautenberg, the DHS regulations, released in a draft to Congress in December, do not include a similar stipulation, and Section 550 would undermine New Jersey’s stricter rules. DHS faces an April 6 deadline to finalize its regulations.
The $550 billion U.S. chemical industry has about 15,000 facilities across the country. The FBI, Lautenberg said, has identified the two-mile stretch between Port Newark and Newark Liberty International Airport as the most at-risk two miles in America. The threat of chemical terrorism came to the forefront last week when three chlorine bombs detonated in Iraq killed eight people and caused illness in hundreds more.
The Environmental Protection Agency, said Corzine, has found that there are a number of plants in New Jersey where a worst-case scenario would threaten more than 1 million people.
Lautenberg said he had called the hearing "to shed light on how our state has increased its level of chemical security and how damaging this federal Department of Homeland Security proposal would be."
In his testimony, U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez agreed with Lautenberg’s assessment of the DHS rules.
"The department’s proposed regulations would not just jeopardize the progress we are making here in New Jersey to ensure our plants are secure and our communities are safe it would take us backwards," he said.
"We really appreciated all of the input and perspectives offered by members of Congress, state and local jurisdictions, and industry," said Lawrence Stanton, deputy director of DHS’s Risk Management division. The draft regulations received more than 1,300 pages of comments from members of Congress and industry leaders. DHS is reviewing and considering these comments, he said.
"The Bush Administration cannot be allowed to pre-empt New Jersey or any other state law when it comes to chemical plant security," Lautenberg said after the hearing. "Today’s hearing was proof positive Congress must enable states like New Jersey to take the steps they need to better protect their communities."
According to DHS spokesman Russ Knocke, who spoke to The Jewish Standard on Tuesday, while the security work of states like New Jersey is fully recognized, the majority of the responsibility for the nation’s security is placed on the federal government and it is the federal government that would be held accountable in the case of a terror attack.
"Ultimately, the state of New Jersey and other states around the country are going to be significantly more secure as a result of these regulations," he said. He would not disclose the specifics of new regulations DHS is considering, but said they would be released in the near future.
The goal of the regulations, Knocke said, would be to create a balance with industrialists, especially those who do not adhere to the department’s safety regulations.
"We’re going to have a balance that places a real burden on those select few facilities that have not been cooperative to date," he said. "If they choose to continue to be uncooperative, we have strong authority to make their lives difficult."
Penalties would include fines of up to $’5,000 per day and a shutdown of the offending plant if violations continue. The purpose is to find the right security measures for each situation, he said "not to create a one size fits all security solution for everyone."
Knocke said New Jersey will not be displeased with the regulations.
"The work that’s been done in New Jersey is recognized and it’s not done for nothing," he said. "When we put out the final regulations it will satisfy a lot of concerns."