House Republicans Underline Threat to Cut Chemical Security Funds

Douglas P. Guarino, Global Security Newswire

WASHINGTON -- In prelude to a hearing later this week, House Republicans are once again threatening to cut funding for the Homeland Security Department’s controversial chemical security program, arguing that progress toward fully implementing the initiative remains too slow.

In a July 22 letter to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, House Republicans said that despite some advancement, the DHS effort retains a “backlog of approximately 3,120 facilities” where site-security plans need review. The missive cites a past finding by the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office that it could take up to nine years to review the remaining plans.

At an annual chemical security conference in Baltimore earlier this month, David Wulf, director of the DHS infrastructure security compliance division, sought to portray the program as one that had “turned a corner.”

He noted that as of last July, the effort had given preliminary approval to only 50 site-security plans, conducted only 10 inspections and had not granted final approval to a single facility-security program since it was first authorized by Congress in 2007.

One year later, the department has provided preliminary approval for “upwards of 500” site-security plans, has conducted more than 50 inspections and has granted final approval for 160 facility-security plans, he said.

This week, though, the GOP lawmakers underlined their lingering concerns by noting the lethal explosion earlier this year of a Texas fertilizer plant that the program had failed to regulate.

“As the tragic explosion of the West Fertilizer Plant in April has brought to light, DHS is unaware of the existence of thousands of small facilities across the country that are potentially covered” under the law that created the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards, the letter says.

“As the chairmen responsible for authorizing and funding CFATS, we are convinced the program should not continue in its present condition,” states the correspondence, signed by Michael McCaul (R-Texas), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee; Fred Upton (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee; and John Carter (R-Texas), chairman of the House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee. “While the need to secure American facilities with chemicals of concern is a critical one, the CFATS program is simply not getting the job done.”

The lawmakers noted that the fiscal 2014 appropriations bill for Homeland Security already withholds $20 million in DHS funds until the department submits a report that includes justification for its expenditures and a plan to reduce its backlog. They again asked for this and other information by Sept. 30.

Labor and environmental groups, meanwhile, are arguing that even if it ran more smoothly, the CFATS program could not sufficiently secure dangerous chemicals. That is because the underlying law prohibits the DHS effort from requiring any specific security measures, they say.

Instead, the groups say, the Environmental Protection Agency should use its authority under the Clean Air Act to tighten security measures.

In the wake of the West, Texas, tragedy, Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairwoman of Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, has also called on EPA officials to be more proactive in preventing chemical disasters.  Republicans and major industry groups have long been opposed to additional EPA involvement, however.

House Republicans said certain aspects of the DHS program, as it stands, may already be too strict.

In their new letter, they reiterated past concerns that the system the department uses to place facilities into different categories, based on risk, accounts only for the consequences of a disaster at a particular facility and not for the likelihood of such an incident occurring. The category into which a facility is placed can affect the extent to which it is regulated.

McCaul will chair a Homeland Security Committee hearing on the program on Thursday.