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Homeland Security: Scrutiny Of Chemical Plant Security Program Continues

by Glenn Hess
January 21, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 3

Republicans control the House of Representatives (left), but Democrats hold the majority in the Senate.
A visual breakdown of the political party distribution in the U.S. House and Senate.
Republicans control the House of Representatives (left), but Democrats hold the majority in the Senate.

The Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) antiterrorism program for thousands of high-risk chemical facilities across the U.S. will face fresh scrutiny this year from new leaders in both chambers of Congress.

Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.) has taken the helm at the Senate Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs Committee, replacing retired Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.). And Rep. Michael T. McCaul (R-Texas) has succeeded term-limited Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) as chairman of the House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee.

Both committees are expected to hold oversight hearings to examine the progress DHS has made in the past year toward resolving a litany of management problems that have hindered implementation of the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards (CFATS) program since its inception in 2007.

Widespread problems within the nation’s primary chemical security regulatory program were disclosed a year ago in a leaked internal memo that described mismanagement of resources, poor hiring decisions, and delays in evaluating facility security plans. DHS officials have been working on a reform plan, and they say CFATS is now on a slow but steady track forward.

Carper and McCaul both say their priorities include securing the nation’s borders and ports, protecting critical infrastructure from cyber criminals, and ensuring that DHS programs are effective and that taxpayer dollars are not mismanaged.

Neither chairman had a hand in crafting the legislation that created CFATS, but both are expected to play a significant role in charting a future course for the program, according to William E. Allmond IV, vice president of government and public relations at the Society of Chemical Manufacturers & Affiliates (SOCMA), an industry trade group.

“I think both the House and the Senate will set aside some time to talk about how to ensure that the existing CFATS program stays in place at least for the short term,” Allmond says.

Recently installed leaders in the DHS office that manages CFATS “have demonstrated that they are getting the program back on track,” Allmond notes. “Congress should definitely feel better about the progress and also the continuity of the leadership team now overseeing these standards,” given that President Barack Obama was reelected.

Ultimately, Allmond says, he expects to see another one-year extension of CFATS, which Congress has been renewing annually as part of the DHS budget.

Meanwhile, an aide to Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) says the congressman plans to reintroduce legislation that would bar the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating security at chemical facilities.

In 1990, Congress passed amendments to the Clean Air Act and included a general duty clause, placing an obligation on chemical facilities to identify hazards that may result from a toxic chemical release and to take “necessary steps” to prevent such releases.

Unsatisfied with the security measures of the CFATS program, a coalition of environmental and labor groups has petitioned EPA to use the clause to require chemical facilities to use lower risk chemicals and safer processes. The activists have criticized the fact that CFATS prohibits DHS from requiring specific security measures.

But Pompeo says new security rules from EPA would be “a clear encroachment on DHS’s jurisdiction.” To avoid that situation, he introduced a bill last August called the General Duty Clarification Act (H.R. 6345) that would have left plant-site security under the exclusive jurisdiction of DHS. Congress did not consider the measure in its last session.

After Pompeo reintroduces his bill this year, it will be referred to the House Energy & Commerce Committee for consideration.


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