Lawmaker blasts shutdown of DHS chemical security program
The Homeland Security Department's chemical-security program ceased most operations 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.
"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.
According to Allmond, 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 to 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.
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.