Skip To Main

Lawmakers Suggest Extension of Chemical Security Regulations

By Martin Matishak

Global Security Newswire

WASHINGTON — Members of a key congressional panel on Friday called for a long-term extension of a U.S. Homeland Security Department effort that sets regulations for facilities that manufacture, use, store or distribute substances that could be used to produce chemical warfare materials (see GSN, Dec. 13, 2007).

(Feb. 14) – Tank rail cars for chemical loads, shown in 2003. A panel of lawmakers last week called for extending Homeland Security Department rules for facilities that work with chemicals that could be exploited by terrorists (David McNew/Getty Images).

Yet while lawmakers lauded the program, they expressed frustration with aspects of the effort that have yet to be completed, including Homeland Security’s failure to formally approve a single site security plan.

An extension of the department’s Chemical Facility Antiterrorism Standards would “provide our chemical facility partners … those who are spending collectively millions of dollars implementing new security measures … that the rules and requirements won’t change from year to year as the CFATS program is being implemented,” House Homeland Security infrastructure protection subcommittee Chairman Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) said during the panel’s first hearing of the new Congress.

“This will also provide the department with a certainty that Congress believes chemical security will be a priority for years to come” as it continues to implement and invest in the program, he added.

The antiterrorism standards had been set to expire at the end of fiscal 2010 but were temporarily extended under the continuing budget resolution due to end on March 4. Should the standards expire, the department would lose its authority to regulate chemical industry security.

The full House last year passed legislation that would have given the effort permanent status and expanded it to cover drinking water and wastewater plants, and facilities located at the nation’s ports; however, the legislation stalled in the Senate.

While Lungren did not specify the length of the envisioned extension, a congressional aide said it would be for seven years. The aide asked for anonymity because the necessary legislation has not yet been introduced.

“Even though CFATS is in its middle stages, we can already see its value,” said committee ranking Democrat Yvette Clarke (N.Y.). She asserted the program should be made permanent through “comprehensive authorization.”

Homeland Security “has not only moved expeditiously, but thoughtfully with the CFATS regulations” since it was given the authority to regulate the chemical industry for security in 2007, added Representative Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.)

The antiterrorism standards are intended to identify and impose federal security regulations on high-risk sites where dangerous chemicals are made, used or stored. The program boasts 109 chemical inspectors in the field and at DHS headquarters.

The program requires covered chemical facilities to prepare “Security Vulnerability Assessments” to identify protection weaknesses and implement “Site Security Plans” that address their level of risk, according to a DHS fact sheet. Facilities are placed in one of four security tiers based on the level of risk posed by the chemicals in their possession.

The program covers 4,755 high-risk facilities nationwide. Of those, 4,094 have received final risk determinations and deadlines for submission of their security plans, Rand Beers, undersecretary of the DHS National Protection and Programs Directorate, told the subcommittee.

Today there are 218 facilities in the top tier that encompasses the sites deemed to pose the greatest danger; 535 in the second tier; 1,126 in the third tier; and 2,215 in the fourth tier, according to Beers. The department also has about 650 sites awaiting final tier designation, he added.

The department also released a list of “chemicals of interest,” 300 materials often possessed at chemical plants. The list includes substances covered under the Environmental Protection Agency’s Risk Management Program and those that could serve as precursors to agents listed in the Chemical Weapons Convention such as mustard agent and the nerve agent sarin.

Beer said 1,246 facilities have completely removed their chemicals of interest, while an additional 584 sites no longer possess the quantities that meet the threshold requirements to be considered as high-risk.

The administration supports a permanent authorization of the antiterrorism standards and would be willing to work with lawmakers to pass stand-alone chemical security legislation that would close the program’s current gaps, according to Beers.

While subcommittee members commended the chemical security effort, lawmakers also expressed displeasure with its lack of concrete results.

Lungren noted that while the program covers nearly 5,000 facilities, it has completed only 175 “preauthorization inspections” — visits meant to provide in-depth knowledge of a plant and assist in its compliance with the antiterrorism standards.

Meanwhile, the program has wrapped up only four authorization inspections at sites that have brought themselves in line with the effort and no facility security plans have been formally approved or disapproved, according to Lungren.

“We’re looking at effective and efficient government and if I go home and talk to my constituents and say, ‘Hey, I’m proud of the fact that I helped start this program four years ago … and yet we have one site or no sites that have actually been approved,’ they’re going to say how is that efficient and how is that effective and what are you going to do about it?” the panel chairman asked.

Beers responded that progress had been slow because the department began with a list of 47,000 potential facilities that might fall within the program’s purview. That number was then reduced to roughly 8,000 sites and then whittled down to the present figure.

He also noted that even though the department has not given final approval to any site security program does not mean facilities have not taken measures to bolster their safety during the evaluation process.

“We have not approved a single plan yet, but I think it is absolutely fair to say that we have moved in the direction of making America safer,” Beers told the panel.

He added that the department now has a better grasp of the security challenges facing the chemical industry; enjoys a strong working relationship with that sector; and possesses the right infrastructure to begin implementing the regulations.

“So we’re ready to start seeing results?” asked Representative Billy Long (R-Mo.).

“We have been seeing the results, but we’ve got a ways to go, sir,” Beers replied. He predicted that the department would wrap up the inspection process for first-tier facilities by the end of the calendar year.

The DHS initiative also received a boost from a major industry partner.

“CFATS is yielding measurable results,” Timothy Scott, chief security officer for the Dow Chemical Co., told the subcommittee after Beers’s testimony.

The company supported the 2007 legislation that gave Homeland Security the authority to regulate chemical security.

The program “is in fact achieving its objectives to reduce the number of high-risk sites and lower the risk profile of the remaining high-risk sites,” according to Scott, who also spoke on behalf of the American Chemistry Council.

He said he understood frustration with the program’s progress to date but warned lawmakers against starting over with a new chemical security program, pointing out that some companies have taken steps to remove themselves from the high-risk first tier and implemented other security upgrades.

“We are moving very fast on the industry side. We wish DHS could move a little bit faster, and I think permanence and consistency by reauthorizing the CFATS would be the way to,” Scott told the panel.

Click here for access to the article.