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Wednesday June 29, 2011 | 02:57 PM

A three-year extension authored by Sen. Susan Collins of the law meant to secure the nation’s chemical facilities against terrorist attacks has been approved by a bipartisan 8-2 vote by the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.

A similar bill has been approved, also by a bipartisan major, in a House committee, but some environmentalists and Democrats wants to see changes.

Collins said that the current law works well. While chemical facilities are “tempting targets for terrorists, the Department of Homeland Security has used the existing law to “develop a comprehensive chemical security program.”

Collins said that the roles for the federal government and private sector under the current law “are clear: “the federal government sets requirements but recognizes that owners and operators of facilities are in the best position to design appropriate security measures to meet those requirements for their facilities.”

Collins added that, “This landmark law has been in place for over four years and security at our nation’s chemical facilities is much stronger today as a result."  

But the environmental group Greenpeace says the bipartisan vote doesn’t mean there is consensus over the bill. The group criticizes Collins, the top Republican on the committee, for not including provisions such as requiring facilities to consider safer chemical processes in doing their work and making the legislation cover what goes on at water and wastewater plants.

Voting for the bill was Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., the committee’s chairman.

But Rick Hind, Greenpeace’s legislative director, noted that Lieberman also indicated that while he wanted to move the renewal of the law along, he also wants to see it altered on the Senate floor. The Obama administration, too, has indicated that it believes the extension should do more to require facilities using dangerous chemicals to take action to reduce the consequences and chemical fallout of a terrorist attack or other catastrophe, such as substituting less toxic chemicals when possible, manufacturing lots in smaller batches or .

“It is as if the state of Maine forbade communities from requiring sprinklers in hotels and hospitals and schools,” said Hind, though he noted Maine does not have many large chemical facilities. “Whenever people say bipartisan they want to imply consensus. What we do not have on this is consensus.”

The chemical industry says the current law is working and praised committee passage of Collins’ bill, whose co-authors include Democratic Sens. Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana.

The American Chemistry Council said that its members have, since 2001, spent more than $8 billion to improve security at their facilities.

“The carefully crafted legislation approved today ensures the effort to secure chemical facilities will continue to advance under CFATS (Continuing Chemical Facilities Antiterrorism Security Act) and provides the regulatory certainty that is vital to protecting the economic health of the nation,” the council said in a statement.

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Kevin Miller is Washington bureau chief for the Portland Press Herald and MaineToday Media. He has worked as a journalist in Maine for 6 ½ years, covering the environment, politics and the State House. Before arriving in Maine, he wrote about politics, government and education for newspapers in Virginia and Maryland.
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