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Chemical plants at risk, US agency says

WASHINGTON -- About 7,000 facilities, roughly half of the nation's chemical plants, are at high risk of catastrophe from either an accident or terrorist attack, the government said yesterday.

Homeland Security Department officials released rules that will require performance standards from those high-risk plants, focusing first on the 300 to 400 facilities considered to be of the highest concern.

About 70 regulators from the Homeland Security Department will begin this summer carrying out audits and site inspections, Assistant Secretary Robert Stephan said.

Plants that fail to comply face substantial fines or even may be shut down.

Secretary Michael Chertoff said many facilities have already taken steps on their own to address security issues, but because they are such attractive targets to terrorists, more needs to be done.

"The important thing is to make sure we bring even those that are laggards up to the standards the public has a right to expect" since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Chertoff said.

In a bow to concerns from states that already have stricter rules, notably New Jersey, the final rules allow existing state laws to remain unchallenged. Chertoff insisted the rules will not interfere with any current regulations in New Jersey or any other state.

Some lawmakers were not reassured.

"New Jersey has the strongest chemical-security laws in the nation, in part because it asks companies to identify high-risk chemicals and works with those companies to replace them with safer ones," said Senator Frank Lautenberg, Democrat of New Jersey. "The Bush administration's proposal would prevent New Jersey from finishing that job."

Echoing his New Jersey colleague, Democratic Senator Robert Menendez added that the federal rules do not yet go far enough to protect citizens.

"As the threat evolves and new ideas emerge, states that want to improve security should not have their hands tied by the federal government," he said.

Asked whether the federal rules would prevent New Jersey or other states from enacting stronger laws than exist today, Chertoff waved off the question as hypothetical.

"It's going to get resolved the way it always is -- someone's going to go to court," he said.

The top Republican on the Senate Homeland Security Committee said she was pleased that the regulations will allow the process of securing chemical facilities to begin.

But Maine Senator Susan Collins added that she felt the regulations were "overreaching" when it comes to state regulatory laws.

Spokesman Scott Jensen of the American Chemistry Council praised the rules and said they will make the nation safer.

The new rules require facilities found to be high risk to complete vulnerability assessments and security plans.

The Homeland Security Department will set performance standards that include securing the perimeters of the plants and any potential targets inside, controlling access to the facility, deterring theft, and preventing sabotage.

The rules allow the department for the first time to force recalcitrant plant operators to fall in line, either by issuing civil fines of up to $25,000 per day or in the most extreme cases shutting a plant down.