Tuesday, March 20, 2007

NJ's Rights Attacked (Again)

One of the fundamental beliefs I've held for the entire time I've been politically conscious is that while the Federal government sets minimum standards, it is a State's right to determine if those standards adequately protect it's population. Granted, there will always be issues where the interest of the nation leads to standards above what some States would like, the number of those issues is where the classic divide between Republicans and Democrats stands. However, up until the Bush Administration, it was almost unheard of that the Federal government would attempt to trump a State's right to enforce a more stringent safety standard than the Federal one. Now, for at least the third time in less than a year the Administration is attacking New Jersey's right to protect us.

First, it was an Administration supported bill aimed at eliminating New Jersey's right to label the food we buy at the supermarket as we saw fit (Rep. Garrett voted against this bill and it died in the Senate). Then, it was the EPA announcing an increase in the amount of pollutants like mercury and lead a company could dispose of in the environment before they reported how they did it. Now, it is the Department of Homeland Security continuing it's march toward an April 4th change in regulations that would weaken New Jersey's regulations on the chemical plants we have in our state that contribute to New Jersey being home to the "Two most dangerous miles in America."

At a hearing held by Senator Frank Lautenberg in Newark yesterday, a Deputy for DHS Lawrence Stanton had this to say:
"The federal government has a role to play as well as the states, and we believe as a matter of principle that these things can be worked out," Stanton said.

The Homeland Security Department plans to preempt a local or state rule only when the rule would "frustrate" Washington's ability to secure plants, he promised.
That's all well and good, and would make sense if it wasn't an established fact that our security regulations are the most stringent in the nation, so preempting only stands to make us less safe. With NJ's population density and seven plants within range of a million people, our tougher standards are intended to prevent another Bhopal disaster. In a worst case scenario at one of those seven plants, the loss of life from Bhopal(15,000) compared to what New Jersey would suffer is akin to comparing the loss of life from Hurricane Katrina (1,836) to the 2004 Tsunami (229,866). It would be Bhopal on steroids.

This dangerous change in DHS policy came before the Senate last year at the behest of the Administration, and they rejected the idea of endangering us by weakening our regulations. Still, the Administration announced the DHS regulations on their own, the Friday afternoon before Christmas (so no one would notice). And what noble cause, national security and public safety requirement dictates our State getting watered down Federal regulations: Corporate interests.

During the hearing yesterday, Stanton acknowledged that his understanding was that the chemical lobby would prefer to have the weaker Federal regulations trump our State's right to protect us. While corporate interests were not so explicitly rolled out with the DHS proposal initially, when the EPA rolled out the weaker reporting requirements they didn't mince words, citing the billions their proposal would save business. Seeing a jarring public health and safety conflict with relaxing the EPA standards, Senator Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) requested the Government Accountability Office to look into how this rules change transpired. Here is a bit of what they reported to the Senate a couple weeks ago:
Although we have not yet completed our evaluation, our preliminary observations indicate that EPA did not adhere to its own rulemaking guidelines in all respects when developing the proposal to change TRI reporting requirements. We have identified several significant differences between the guidelines and the process EPA followed. First, late in the process, senior EPA management directed the inclusion of a burden reduction option that raised the Form R reporting threshold, an option that the TRI workgroup charged with analyzing potential options, had dropped from consideration early in the process. Second, EPA developed this option on an expedited schedule that appears to have provided a limited amount of time for conducting various impact analyses. Third, the decision to expedite final agency review, when EPA’s internal and regional offices determine whether they concur with the final proposal, appears to have limited the amount of input they could provide to senior EPA management.
They rushed the process not to protect the public interest or safety, but because they had already received over 118,000 letters in opposition (out of about 120,000) to the plan. There is no way this ever would have gotten through the House, let alone the Senate. The same mode of operation is being used with regard to the DHS attack on our chemical safety laws. They couldn't get it through the Senate, and now the Administration has decided to go through the bureaucracy.

I have no issue with the majority of chemical companies already doing business in our state. While some companies do resist increasing regulations further, the majority have been good partners in disaster planning with First Responders I've spoken with. I also fully understand and appreciate the contributions the chemical industry provides for our State and nation. That said, I also appreciate the fact that they are generating the billions they do with our tougher regulations in place. If other companies wish to tap into our talented and experienced pool of employees, they too can make a profit in NJ without subverting public safety via an overstep of Federal authority.

A large chemical disaster will have one certain outcome, citizen sickness and death. The question is, how many will die and how many will have died unnecessarily if the Administration succeeds? If they haven't already grown the moral fortitude to fight this plan, I hope our entire Congressional delegation will soon be loudly criticizing it, if not they should be held accountable next year.

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