With Rare Support, Chemical Security Legislation Advances in House

Fire department personnel walk among the remains of an apartment complex next to the fertilizer plant that exploded in April 2013 in West, Texas. House lawmakers are advancing legislation meant to extend the life of a Homeland Security Department program meant to help shield such facilities from terrorist attacks.
National Journal
Douglas P. Guarino
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Douglas P. Guarino
April 3, 2014, 10:50 a.m.

A House sub­com­mit­tee on Thursday moved le­gis­la­tion meant to ex­tend the life of the Home­land Se­cur­ity De­part­ment’s chem­ic­al-se­cur­ity pro­gram that — for the first time in years — ap­pears to have the sup­port of both House com­mit­tees with jur­is­dic­tion over the is­sue.

Nu­mer­ous ef­forts by the House Home­land Se­cur­ity Com­mit­tee to pass le­gis­la­tion provid­ing long-term au­thor­iz­a­tion for DHS chem­ic­al-fa­cil­ity an­ti­ter­ror­ism stand­ards in re­cent years have failed, largely due to dis­agree­ments with the House En­ergy and Com­merce Com­mit­tee, which also over­sees the mat­ter.

However, the latest in­carn­a­tion of the bill — which Rep­res­ent­at­ive Patrick Mee­han (R-Penn.) first in­tro­duced in Feb­ru­ary and which has been backed by House Home­land Se­cur­ity Com­mit­tee Chair­man Mi­chael Mc­Caul (R-Texas) — has been de­veloped with as­sist­ance from House En­ergy and Com­merce Com­mit­tee staffers, a Home­land Se­cur­ity Com­mit­tee aide told Glob­al Se­cur­ity News­wire. The aide was not au­thor­ized to dis­cuss the is­sue pub­licly and asked not to be named.

At a hear­ing in Feb­ru­ary, Rep­res­ent­at­ive Ben­nie Thompson (D-Miss.) sug­ges­ted that the bill could ac­tu­ally in­crease jur­is­dic­tion­al ten­sions between com­mit­tees. He also raised con­cerns that the le­gis­la­tion would do little to re­form many con­tro­ver­sial as­pects of the DHS pro­gram, which is aimed at help­ing shield com­mer­cial chem­ic­al fa­cil­it­ies from ter­ror­ist at­tacks that could prove deadly to sur­round­ing com­munit­ies.

Rep­res­ent­at­ive Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.), the top Demo­crat on the Home­land Se­cur­ity Sub­com­mit­tee on Cy­ber­se­cur­ity, In­fra­struc­ture Pro­tec­tion and Se­cur­ity Tech­no­lo­gies, said on Thursday that pan­el Re­pub­lic­ans had “paid at­ten­tion to some of the con­cerns” Demo­crats raised in Feb­ru­ary dur­ing the pro­cess of draft­ing an amended ver­sion of the bill.

The sub­com­mit­tee ap­proved the amended bill by a un­an­im­ous voice vote on Thursday. However, Clarke and oth­er Demo­crats said they still had sev­er­al con­cerns with the le­gis­la­tion that they hoped to have ad­dressed pri­or to a fu­ture vote by the full com­mit­tee.

Dur­ing Thursday’s markup ses­sion, Clarke and Rep­res­ent­at­ive Steven Horsford (D-Nev.) offered sev­er­al ad­di­tion­al amend­ments to the bill, nearly all of which were re­jec­ted on party-line votes.

Among the failed Demo­crat­ic amend­ments was one Clarke offered in an at­tempt to ad­dress her con­cerns that the bill could al­low DHS to out­source the in­spec­tion of chem­ic­al fa­cil­it­ies to private con­tract­ors.

“I have re­ser­va­tions about the use of con­tract­ors in the in­spect­or cadre, where this work is gen­er­ally re­cog­nized as an in­her­ently gov­ern­ment­al re­spons­ib­il­ity, es­pe­cially when it in­volves ter­ror­ist threats and risks to the na­tion,” she said.

In ur­ging his fel­low Re­pub­lic­ans to vote against the amend­ment, Mee­han, the sub­com­mit­tee chair­man, noted that the En­ergy De­part­ment routinely out­sources sens­it­ive na­tion­al se­cur­ity work to the private con­tract­ors that run the na­tion­al labor­at­or­ies and oth­er nuc­le­ar weapons fa­cil­it­ies.

Also re­jec­ted was an amend­ment by Clarke meant to ad­dress her con­cerns that wa­ter and wastewa­ter fa­cil­it­ies — which of­ten deal with dan­ger­ous chem­ic­als — are ex­empt from the DHS pro­gram.

A failed amend­ment by Horsford would have ad­ded whis­tleblower pro­tec­tions to chem­ic­al fa­cil­ity em­ploy­ees who wish to flag po­ten­tial se­cur­ity con­cerns without pla­cing their em­ploy­ment status in jeop­ardy. Horsford cited re­cent con­cerns that whis­tleblowers who raised safety con­cerns at the Han­ford nuc­le­ar weapons waste site had lost their jobs in re­tali­ation

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