WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration is adding the closure of the Homeland Security Department's chemical security program to its list of reasons why Congress should end the partial government shutdown that began last week.
The Chemical Facilities Anti-terrorism Standards program, which is in the middle of a multi-year effort to approve security plans for high risk chemical plants in the United States, ceased most operations last week as a result of the congressional stalemate over fiscal 2014 spending and health-care reform, Global Security Newswire reported. Congress has yet to permanently authorize the CFATS program, so the failure to pass a spending bill means the initiative not only lacks funds but also the legal authority to operate.
"This underscores the need for the shutdown to end, and for Congress to pass a permanent reauthorization of the CFATS program," DHS spokesman Clark Stevens said in a statement to GSN. Stevens confirmed that employees of the Infrastructure Security Compliance Division, which runs the chemical security program, have been furloughed.
However, "chemical facilities should continue to comply with the requirements of CFATS, including continuing to comply with the existing and planned security measures in any approved site security plan or alternative security program," Stevens said. A Democratic Senate aid previously told GSN the administration is making a legal determination that it is not the intent of Congress to cancel the program, given that proposed spending bills in both chambers would have extended the initiative.
The indefinite shutdown of the program, however, is causing concern among lawmakers regarding how the government will improve safety and security in the wake of chemical disasters in Texas and Louisiana this year. The government had just begun work under an executive order President Obama issued in response to the incidents. Chief among the concerns the order was meant to address was that the DHS program was unaware of the Texas facility's existence when it exploded in April, killing 14 people and leveling nearby homes.
"Over the past few days, we have seen the harmful impact the federal shutdown has had across our nation, from furloughed federal workers to halted programs that impact millions of Americans, including our chemical security program," Senator Thomas Carper (D-Del.) said in a statement to GSN. "As we saw earlier this year with the tragic explosions at chemical facilities in Texas and Louisiana, it's important that we make sure that chemicals are being produced, distributed and stored in a manner that is both safe and secure."
Previously, Rep. Bennie Thompson (Miss.), the top Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee," called the CFATS shutdown an "unconscionable … result of Republican gamesmanship."
Industry supporters of the program also had strong words. Bill Allmond, vice president for government relations at the Society of Chemical Manufacturers and Affiliates, told GSN that as a result of the shutdown, Congress would have to turn questions regarding the pace of CFATS implementation "back on itself."
Carper, who chairs the Senate Homeland Security Committee, said he would work with his colleagues to not only end the partial government closure but also to ensure that the CFATS program "isn't as vulnerable to these reckless shutdowns" in the future.
Efforts to pass legislation permanently authorizing the program have gone nowhere in recent years, however. The Republican leadership of the House Energy and Commerce Committee has effectively blocked such bills, citing concerns the program has not completed site inspections and security plan reviews fast enough.
Labor and environmental groups, meanwhile, have argued the program lacks the teeth needed to ensure facilities are safe and secure, and have called on the Environmental Protection Agency to fill the perceived void -- a prospect strongly opposed by industry officials.
Early in July, DHS program head David Wulf argued the initiative had "turned a corner." He noted that as of last July, the effort had only given preliminary approval to 50 site-security plans, conducted only 10 inspections and had not granted final approval to single security plan since the CFATS program was first authorized by Congress in 2007.
One year later, the program had preliminary approved "upwards of 500" security plans, conducted more than 50 inspections and granted final approval for 160 plans, he said.
However, later the same month, House Republicans hinted this was not good enough. In a July 22 letter threatening to try to reduce funds for the program, GOP lawmakers complained of a "backlog of approximately 3,120 facilities" where security plans still needed review.
This article was published in Global Security Newswire, which is produced independently by National Journal Group under contract with the Nuclear Threat Initiative. NTI is a nonprofit, nonpartisan group working to reduce global threats from nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons.