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DHS to Consult With Industry on New Chemical Worker Screening Plan

By Douglas P. Guarino

Global Security Newswire

A Texas chemical plant, shown in 2007. Officials on Tuesday said the U.S. Homeland Security Department would prepare a new plan to screen people with access to sensitive chemical sites for possible ties to terrorism. A previous proposal was withdrawn in July (AP Photo/David Phillip). A Texas chemical plant, shown in 2007. Officials on Tuesday said the U.S. Homeland Security Department would prepare a new plan to screen people with access to sensitive chemical sites for possible ties to terrorism. A previous proposal was withdrawn in July (AP Photo/David Phillip).

BALTIMORE -- The U.S. Homeland Security Department will develop a new plan for screening people with access to high-risk chemical plants for possible terrorist ties after conferring with industry representatives over the next few weeks, DHS officials said on Tuesday (see GSN, July 27).

The department pulled its previous screening proposal last month. The plan, under which chemical companies would have been required to submit information about people authorized to enter select facilities that contain toxic chemicals, had been languishing at the White House Management  and Budget Office since June 2011.

The now-abandoned plan faced strong opposition from a broad range of industry organizations, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Chemistry Council and the American Petroleum Institute, which argued it would have been duplicative of other security screening programs in which their member companies already participate. They added, in an April letter urging OMB Administrator Cass Sunstein to reject the proposal, that it would create costly paperwork without a tangible benefit.

Labor and environmental groups also opposed the plan, raising concerns about privacy and suggesting it could ruin employment opportunities for chemical sector workers erroneously linked to terrorist groups. Under the proposal, companies would have submitted information – including name, date and place of birth and visa information – about their workers and others with access to their facilities. Homeland Security would then have checked the data against the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Database.

“Our thinking has evolved over the last several months,” David Wulf, deputy director for the DHS infrastructure security compliance division, said at a chemical security conference here on Tuesday. He said department officials might be willing to consider ways in which the department could “leverage” existing personnel security programs in which chemical companies already participate as a means of fulfilling a DHS screening requirement.

Wulf cited as an example the Transportation Worker Identification Credential program, through which the Transportation Security Administration and the U.S. Coast Guard screen workers at port facilities and other sensitive areas. Industry officials have previously pointed to the program -- under which workers must submit fingerprints and other information to receive credentials enabling them unescorted access to select areas and ships -- as an example of the type of existing vetting process that could be used to satisfy a personnel surety requirement at chemical facilities.

Wulf said DHS officials hope to discuss possibilities for a new plan with industry officials over the next two to three weeks. He said the department then aims to submit a new personnel screening proposal to the White House in a matter of “months, but not many months.”

“We do need to get this done,” Wulf said.

Under the Paperwork Reduction Act, federal agencies must win OMB approval when demanding information from companies. They also must subject the proposal to multiple rounds of public comment by posting notices in the Federal Register before the plan can be finalized.

Suzanne Spaulding, deputy undersecretary for the DHS National Protection and Programs Directorate, told Global Security Newswire the department hoped there would be “no surprises” during the public comment periods since it would be consulting with industry prior to formally submitting a new plan.

Personnel screening is a component of the DHS Chemical Facility Antiterrorism Standards program. The initiative has been under fire from House Republicans since late last year when a leaked DHS memo detailed a host of problems with implementation including that the department had failed to complete site inspections and approve facility security plans.

Some observers have asserted that the department’s lack of a sanctioned method for conducting personnel screening is a key reason why some security plans are not yet approved.

“A lot of the failure to implement the program ties back to this barrier that has been around since June of last year,” Bill Allmond, vice president for government relations at the Society of Chemical Manufactures and Affiliates, told GSN last week. Allmond was referring to the point at which the department submitted its controversial screening proposal for OMB review.

Spaulding argued, however, that the lack of a screening plan was not inhibiting implementation of the broader chemical security regulations. On July 16, the department resumed conducting on-site inspections that are part of the process of approving facility security plans, she said.

“We are not letting the personnel surety issue slow down the process” of approving site security plans, Spaulding told GSN.

Wulf later acknowledged that security plan approvals can only be considered “conditional” until a personnel screening system is in place, however.

Homeland Security officials on Tuesday touted what they said was progress toward getting the program back on track following the concerns that were raised in the leaked memo. Wulf said the department had addressed 59 of 95 “action items” identified as necessary to address result of concerns raised in the memo.

Wulf warned, though, that if budget cuts proposed by House appropriators are approved, the program could be reduced to its “bare bones.”

Incensed over the problems cited in the memo, the Republican-controlled House Appropriations Committee in May approved a bill that would provide only $45.4 million for the program in fiscal 2013, which is $29.1 million less than the Obama administration has requested and $47.9 million below what Congress delivered for the current fiscal year.

Wulf said department officials hoped the program’s final budget allotment would be closer to the $86.4 million approved by the Democrat-controlled Senate Appropriations Committee.

Congressional leaders and the White House on Tuesday reached a deal that would carry forward current spending levels for six months into next year, meaning the department might avoid significant funding changes in the short term, however.

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