Plant incident prompts 'no' vote

Brown-Waite rejects a Homeland Security bill after it sheds immigration rules.

Published May 11, 2007

U.S. Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite's concerns about illegal immigrants working at nuclear power plants prompted the Brooksville Republican to take a controversial vote against a major Homeland Security bill this week.

The measure, which passed 296-126 with the support of the power-wielding Democrats, restores $2.1-billion for first responders through grant programs, keeps open the Florida office of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and allows the government to better investigate disaster response and border security.

But Brown-Waite said the bill didn't go far enough after a number of provisions, including a few focusing on illegal immigration, were removed.

"There is no way that we could support this unless we want to water down homeland security," Brown-Waite, a member of the Committee on Homeland Security, said during a speech on the House floor Wednesday.

At the heart of her argument: an incident at Progress Energy's Crystal River plant in 2005 where three painters used fake Social Security numbers to get their jobs and gain access to the nuclear power facility.

The men, who were hired by an independent contractor, never posed a security risk, officials said, but were able to get close to the turbines that generate electricity from the steam of the nuclear reactor.

A provision written by Brown-Waite would have required employers at highly sensitive sites such as nuclear plants to check a list of employees against immigration status databases. But Democrats cut the measure during the final negotiations.

"A nuclear power plant had illegal aliens with criminal records wandering around in them," Brown-Waite said in her speech. "Does that not scare you?"

Carla Groleau, a Crystal River spokeswoman for Progress Energy, said she wasn't familiar with Brown-Waite's provision or the bill. But she said new security measures in place after the 2005 incident are adequate. "We are very confident in our ability to verify identities," she said.

A spokeswoman for Rep. Bennie Thompson, the Democratic committee chairman, said the illegal immigration language was eliminated because it dealt with matters under the control of the Judiciary Committee. "Our point was not to bog it down with jurisdictional issues," said Thompson spokeswoman Dena Graziano.

Republican lawmakers on the committee rejected that logic, calling it an excuse for inaction. Brown-Waite's office called it a safety issue, not a jurisdiction issue.

The bill next goes to the Senate for consideration. The White House is warning that some language in the measure could prompt a veto.

John Frank can be reached at jfrank@sptimes.com or 754-6114.