WASHINGTON -- Democratic and Republican lawmakers on Thursday welcomed an executive order regarding chemical security that President Obama signed earlier in the day, but they said it remains to be seen whether the directive will solve all the problems highlighted by a lethal explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, earlier this year.
“I’m grateful [the presidential order] was released because it demonstrates some genuine work on the part of the administration to address some of the concerns” that stemmed from the Texas tragedy in April, Representative Patrick Meehan (R-Penn.) told Global Security Newswire after chairing a House Homeland Security subcommittee hearing on chemical security on Thursday. “I’m hopeful it’s a plan, however effectively, to work toward addressing some of the problems discussed at the hearing today.”
Meehan, said, however, that he could not comment on the details of the order or how effective they might be, given that the directive was released only moments before the start of Thursday’s hearing.
Like the hearing, the executive order appears to focus largely on the issue of so-called “outlier” facilities that the Homeland Security Department has failed to regulate under its Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards. Lawmakers and issue experts have raised concerns that while some state and federal agencies were aware that the Texas facility was handling dangerous chemicals, DHS officials did not even know the plant existed.
The presidential order establishes a chemical facility safety and security working group, through which several federal agencies are expected to work together to improve their coordination with state and local governments. It appears to build on efforts to improve data sharing between various governments agencies that DHS officials announced in July.
The order does not mandate that any of the agencies involved -- including the Homeland Security Department, Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration -- craft new, tougher chemical security rules as labor and environmental groups have called for, and which industry has largely opposed.
It does, however, call on the Homeland Security, Labor and Agriculture secretaries to “develop a list of potential regulatory and legislative proposals to improve the safe and security storage, handling, and sale of ammonium nitrate,” the substance believed to have caused the West, Texas, explosion.
In addition, the directive calls on EPA and OSHA officials to review whether their own chemical risk-management programs should cover additional chemicals. The EPA program currently does not address ammonium nitrate.
Representative Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.) -- the top Democrat on the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Cybersecurity, Infrastructure Protection and Security Technologies -- noted during the hearing that it remains to be seen what the executive order “will actually do.”
In a statement released Thursday, Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said the order “shows that when we use our mandated oversight role to solve serious problems facing the American people -- and the president agrees with our solutions -- we can move forwards without changing laws to protect our families and communities.”
As chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Boxer has been highly critical of the EPA response to the Texas incident.
Representative Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), ranking member of the full House committee, said in a statement that the president “should be commended for taking urgent action on this critical issue and directing federal agencies, for the first time, to organize themselves in a way that ensures that the patchwork of regulations work for the American people and actually keep our communities safer and more secure.”
Sean Moulton of the watchdog group Center for Effective Government, testifying during the hearing, called the order “a welcome step toward closing regulatory information gaps among the main agencies overseeing chemical facilities.”
He said, however, that “congressional action may well be needed to achieve all these reforms in a timely way.”
Legislative action on chemical security has not been speedy, though. Efforts to permanently authorize the DHS program, for example, have stalled for years amid various controversies associated with the initiative.
Meehan told GSN he was hopeful Congress would address the issue of permanent authorization, but that it was unclear when. He said his committee was also busy dealing with cyber security issues and that it was unclear whether it had support from the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which shares jurisdiction over the program and has been consistently critical of it.