New US law bars chems from using security to impede probes

29 October 2009 17:42  [Source: ICIS news]

Law bars chems from impeding investigations over securityHOUSTON (ICIS news)--The US Chemical Safety Board (CSB) on Thursday praised legislation aimed at stopping chemical companies from inappropriately using sensitive security information labels to impede safety probes.

The legislation, part of the 2010 US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) appropriations bill, was signed into law on Wednesday by President Barack Obama.

The measure makes it clear that chemical companies cannot designate information as security sensitive to conceal misconduct or prevent embarrassment, according to the two senators who co-sponsored the amendment to the DHS appropriations bill.

Specifically, the legislation was drafted in response to the Bayer CropScience explosion in August 2008 that killed two workers near Charleston, West Virginia, said West Virginia Democratic senators Jay Rockefeller and Robert Byrd.

The amendment ensures communities will have access to important details during future industrial emergencies, the senators said.

CSB chairman John Bresland said: “We welcome this effort by senators Byrd and Rockefeller to prevent companies from inappropriately using ‘sensitive security information’ labels to impede vital public safety investigations."

The revised appropriations bill was passed by the US Senate by a vote of 79-19 and by the US House with a 307-114 vote.

Bayer officials were accused during a hearing earlier this year by the US House Energy and Commerce Committee of using a “campaign of secrecy”. The hearing was based on findings from CSB investigators.

The House committee said Bayer attempted to “conceal information about the explosion by invoking, and in some cases misusing, a statute governing maritime transportation security to designate unprecedented amounts of material as ‘sensitive security information’.”

In addition, Bayer withheld critical information from emergency responders and restricted the use of information provided to federal investigators, according to the committee. Bayer also provided “inaccurate and misleading information” to the public, the committee said.

The House committee accused Bayer of attempting to marginalise news outlets and citizens concerned about the dangers posed by Bayer’s storage of the toxic petrochemical methyl isocyanate.

The DHS appropriations bill says information under the maritime transportation security statute may not designated as security sensitive “in order to conceal a violation of law, inefficiency, or administrative error;…to prevent embarrassment to a person, organisation, or agency;… to restrain competition;… or to prevent or delay the release of information that does not require protection in the interest of transportation security, including basic scientific research information not clearly related to transportation security''.

 “The admissions made by Bayer in their testimony before the [committee] were disturbing,” Byrd said. “I take very seriously the role of oversight by the Congress, and investigations of incidents like that at the Bayer facility must be able to be conducted promptly and without interference.”

Methyl isocyanate, often used in the production of rubber and adhesives, was involved in the 1984 chemical spill that killed thousands in Bhopal, India.

US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) records show Bayer has stored 100,000-999,999 lb (45-453 tonnes) of methyl isocyanate at the plant. The explosion occurred near a large tank that held about 40,000 lb of the chemical.

Bayer did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but previously said that it was concerned over a public debate on the issue and that it sought “to avoid public pressure to reduce the volume of [methyl isocyanate] that is produced and stored by changing to alternative technologies”.

In addition, next year’s budget bill for the Department of the Interior, Environment and Related Agencies includes $600,000 (€408,000) designated for a study to examine the use and storage of methyl isocyanate at the Bayer facility near Charleston, including the feasibility of implementing alternative chemicals or processes and an examination of the cost of alternatives.

That bill has also been passed by the US House and Senate and is in the conference committee stage, where senators and representatives will attempt to work out differences between the two versions of the bill.

($1 = €0.68)

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By: Ben DuBose
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