Shutdown of DHS Chemical-Security Program Prompts Strong Words

Douglas P. Guarino, Global Security Newswire
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Douglas P. Guarino, Global Security Newswire
Oct. 4, 2013, 11:02 a.m.

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.”

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