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Senator Awaits DHS Response to Allegation Chemical Security Workers Overpaid

By Douglas P. Guarino

Global Security Newswire

A section of chain link fence surrounding a 460-acre chemical plant in West Virginia. A key GOP senator’s office on Tuesday indicated the Homeland Security Department had yet to address allegations that employees of its chemical security initiative had received improper compensation and purchased materials with inadequate cause (AP Photo). A section of chain link fence surrounding a 460-acre chemical plant in West Virginia. A key GOP senator’s office on Tuesday indicated the Homeland Security Department had yet to address allegations that employees of its chemical security initiative had received improper compensation and purchased materials with inadequate cause (AP Photo).

WASHINGTON – A key Republican senator is awaiting a response from the Homeland Security Department in regard to accusations that employees of its chemical security program received improper pay and purchased supplies for which they had no use (see GSN, Aug. 2).

Senate Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) had asked Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to respond to the accusations by Aug. 13. Grassley spokeswoman Beth Levine said on Tuesday that the lawmaker had yet to receive a response from the department.

Grassley outlined his concerns in a July 30 letter to Napolitano. He noted that the DHS chemical security operation has been under scrutiny since an internal report detailing a host of problems with the program was leaked to the media late last year. The reported issues included a failure by DHS officials to conduct inspections of chemical facilities that could be targeted by terrorists and to approve security plans submitted by the plants.

Since that time, Grassley said an unidentified “whistleblower” contacted his office to report additional problems with the program, which deploys the department's so-called Chemical Facility Antiterrorism Standards. “They include allegations that [Homeland Security] assigned employees to nonexistent field offices,” the letter says. “As result, employees essentially worked from home while claiming, on paper, to be located in phantom … field offices.”

This, Grassley’s letter claims, led to the employees receiving more compensation than they otherwise would have. Employees “often lived in low locality pay areas while claiming duty stations in high locality pay areas,” according to the letter.

 “In addition, the whistleblower reported that CFATS routinely procured tactical and field equipment which it had no use for as a regulatory and inspection agency rather than a law enforcement or first response agency,” the letter adds. “For example, CFATS purchased chemical HAZMAT suits and hundreds of Toughbook notebooks it could not use.”

Grassley in his letter asked Napolitano a series of detailed questions about the allegations, including how many employees were involved and how much additional pay they received. He also asked how much total was spent on the HAZMAT suits and Toughbook notebooks.

Levine, the Grassley spokeswoman, told Global Security Newswire that the lawmaker was waiting for additional information from the whistleblower and for the department’s response before pursuing the matter further.

A Homeland Security spokesman did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

Grassley’s inquiry comes as a House Republican has introduced legislation that would block the efforts of labor and environmental groups to push the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to craft its own chemical security regulations in light of the problems at the Homeland Security Department.

Last month a coalition of organizations including the United Steelworkers and Greenpeace formally petitioned EPA officials to develop regulations intended to shield U.S. chemical manufacturing plants and other hazardous facilities from being used as tools in terrorist plots. The groups have long argued that the Homeland Security Department’s rules do not do enough to prevent the possibility of lethal substances being released into the environment during a terrorist attack and say that EPA authority under the Clean Air Act could fill the alleged void.

Under the “general duty clause” of the law, the agency has the authority to regulate facilities that produce, handle, process, store or distribute chemicals with the intention of guarding against accidental releases. Unlike the Homeland Security department, EPA officials would have the ability to require facilities to upgrade to so-called “inherently safer technology,” meaning they could require a switch to safer chemicals or processes than those that otherwise might be in place, labor and environmental groups argue.

The bill from Representative Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.), however, would specify that the agency’s authority to regulate against chemical releases does not apply to those that are the result of intentional acts. The legislation would make clear “that EPA’s mission is environmental protection, not homeland security” and give “exclusive jurisdiction” over the matter to Homeland Security, according to a statement from the lawmaker.

Even without having issued formal chemical security regulations, EPA officials already use their authority under the Clean Air Act clause to punish facilities for vulnerabilities that could lead to dangerous releases, according to a background document Pompeo’s office prepared in support of the bill.

The document cites as one example EPA Region 6 – which covers the Southwest – issuing $108,743 in fines under the clause during 2011. EPA Region 1 – which covers New England – fined two manufacturing and distribution facilities for $179,000, the document notes.

Pompeo’s office suggested that the agency’s enforcement of the general duty clause in inconsistent from region to region. The legislation would require EPA officials to issue nationwide rules and guidelines that would better define what constitutes a violation of the clause. This could potentially narrow the circumstances in which the agency could use the authority, just as labor and environmental groups are looking to expand it to cover a broader range of chemical security issues.

The bill, H.R. 6354, is backed by 17 major industry groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Chemistry Council and the American Petroleum Institute. The organizations urged Congress to support the legislation in a July 31 letter.

“This legislation will provide much-needed regulatory certainty by requiring EPA to complete a transparent rulemaking on the general duty clause before finding any facility in violation of the provision,” the letter says. “The legislation would also ensure proper application of the clause by affirming that jurisdiction of chemical facility security remains with DHS, as Congress intended.”

Pompeo introduced the bill on Aug. 2, just before Congress left Washington for a monthlong recess. A congressional aide suggested that proponents do not necessarily expect the legislation to be acted on quickly.

“We’re building support within the House, reaching out to both Republicans and Democrats,” said the aide, who asked to remain anonymous due to not being authorized to discuss the matter publicly. “Of course we would love to see this passed this year, but we’re more than ready to continue our efforts in the next Congress.”

So far, the bill has one co-sponsor, Representative Lee Terry (R-Neb.). It has been referred to the House Energy and Commerce Committee – of which both Pompeo and Terry are members – for further consideration.

Though committee spokeswoman Charlotte Baker said the panel is still reviewing the bill, the committee’s Republican leadership expressed opposition to EPA involvement with the issue earlier this year. Their letter urged EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson to reject requests from Bush-era agency chief Christine Todd Whitman and others for development of chemical security rules.

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