WASHINGTON – The Homeland Security Department's chemical-security program ceased most operations this week as a result of the federal shutdown, prompting concerns about how the government will improve security in the wake of this year's fatal explosion in Texas.
Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) said in a statement to Global Security Newswire Friday that the incident at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, "brought into focus the need to secure dangerous chemicals against accidental or malicious release or detonation." He noted that President Obama in August issued an executive order calling on the DHS Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism program -- along with the Environmental Protection Agency and other federal entities -- to do more work on the issue.
"It is unconscionable that today, as a result of Republican gamesmanship, CFATS as a program is effectively dead -- it has no funding or authorization," said Thompson, the top Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee. "The speaker needs to stand up for what is right and let the House vote on a clean [continuing resolution] that funds the entire government and renews authorization for CFATS."
House Republicans -- who have majority control of the chamber -- have been particularly critical of the Chemical Facilities Anti-Terrorism Standards program since an internal memo reporting numerous problems with the initiative was leaked to the press in late 2011. GOP lawmakers repeatedly have sought to reduce funding for the program, citing the program's struggles to complete site inspections and security plan reviews.
Industry officials who support the program argue that as a result of the government shutdown, Congress itself will be to blame for further delays.
"Every day that Congress keeps the government closed, it is going to make it harder for Congress to then blame DHS on its lack of progress on CFATS," Bill Allmond, vice president for government relations at the Society of Chemical Manufactures and Affiliates told GSN. "The next time Congress calls DHS up to testify on why it hasn't been quicker to implement the CFATS process, Congress is going to have to turn it back on itself and say, 'Did we think about the implications of closing the government on the progress of implementing CFATS?'"
A Republican aide for the House Appropriations Committee -- which has been consistently critical of the program -- said the panel attempted to address the issue by initially filing a continuing resolution that explicitly extended funding and legal authority to run the CFATS program. The initiative needs to be reauthorized annually due to a lack of a permanent Congressional authorization.
Other House Republicans later added amendments to the bill that would have prevented funding for health-care reform, prompting the Democrat-controlled Senate to reject it, however. As a result, most government operations shut down Tuesday, the first day of fiscal 2014.
The Republican committee aide, who asked not to be named due to not being authorized to discuss the issue, said DHS officials were looking for ways to work around the shutdown.
According to Allmond, however, chemical companies that had DHS inspections scheduled for this week received notice that the site visits would be postponed indefinitely. Review of security plan documents is also expected to be frozen, as DHS employees who normally do this work have been furloughed.
Industry officials were scheduled to meet with DHS, EPA and Occupational Safety and Health Administration officials this week regarding how those entities might respond the president's executive order, according to Allmond. The meeting was canceled as a result of the government shutdown, which Allmond says creates prolonged uncertainty for industry regarding what new regulations they might have to comply with and whether companies will have another opportunity to weigh in on possible changes.
A key issue the executive order is meant to address is why CFATS officials were not aware of the West, Texas, facility's existence at the time it exploded and how to prevent such lapses in the future.
A Democratic Senate aid confirmed CFATS employees are not exempt from the shutdown and are furloughed. The Senate aid, who asked to be unnamed due to not being authorized to discuss the issue, said that employees could be recalled in the event of a chemical incident.
Companies are being encouraged to still comply with CFATS regulations because the administration interprets that it is not the intent of Congress to terminate the program, according to the Senate aid. Continuing resolutions passed by both the House and Senate, along with fiscal 2014 appropriations bills authored by both chambers, would have extended authorization for the program, the aide noted.
DHS officials did not respond to requests for comment by press time. An email to David Wulf, who heads the CFATS program in his capacity as DHS Infrastructure Security Compliance Division director, received an automatic reply stating he would be out of the office as of Tuesday and would not be able to return emails or telephone calls until he returns to duty "upon conclusion of the federal funding hiatus."