Speaking near a cluster of chemical plants, New Jersey’s two United States senators and its new homeland security director said the state should be able to enact tougher safety standards for chemical facilities than those proposed by the Bush administration.
A leak last September at one of the plants forced closure of the Pulaski Skyway at rush hour, Sen. Robert Menendez told reporters gathered along the Hackensack River last week.
“We can only imagine the loss of life that would occur if a terrorist attack caused a major release of chlorine gas,” Menendez said. “This is just one plant among many in our state and nation.”
Menendez joined fellow Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg and Richard Canas, New Jersey’s new homeland security director, to promote legislation already proposed by Lautenberg that would let states set their own, more stringent chemical safety standards.
Last month, the Bush administration called for federal regulation of security at chemical plants, but would largely let the industry decide how stiff the protections should be and leave inspections to private auditors. The federal regulations would supersede tougher regulations such as New Jersey’s.
“The president wants a weak, industry-favored approach that pre-empts our state’s chemical safety and security laws,” Lautenberg said. “We say: No way. The Bush administration may favor the interests of the chemical industry over the welfare of our constituents, but we do not.”
Russ Knocke, a spokesman for the federal Homeland Security Department, said the administration wants Congress to pass a chemical safety bill by the end of the year. He said Homeland Security is willing to work with lawmakers on the details.
“The security of chemical plants is an absolutely critical issue, one the administration has been working on for the last three years,” he said. “We have laid out our principles. This is an issue that cannot wait.”
Canas said New Jersey’s tougher standards “should not be pre-empted by federal law.”
“Given the significance of the potential threat, late last year New Jersey moved from voluntary to mandatory standards,” he said. “This was an important step.”
John Pajak, president of the New Jersey Work Environment Council, said he knows firsthand about the danger of toxic, explosive and flammable substances. He has worked the past 15 years at the Conoco-Phillips Bayway Refinery in Linden.
“An accident or a terrorist attack on a chemical plant could endanger thousands of lives,” he said. “Corporate executives and their lobbyists must not be allowed to put even higher profits ahead of worker and public safety and security.”