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Texas Tragedy Cited in House Bid to Cut Chemical Security Budget

By Douglas P. Guarino

Global Security Newswire

An investigator walks through the destroyed fertilizer plant in West, Texas, on May 2. House appropriators are citing the tragedy in a bid to cut chemical security funds (AP Photo/L.M. Otero). An investigator walks through the destroyed fertilizer plant in West, Texas, on May 2. House appropriators are citing the tragedy in a bid to cut chemical security funds (AP Photo/L.M. Otero).

WASHINGTON – House appropriators are citing the April fertilizer plant explosion that killed 14 people and leveled homes in West, Texas, as justification for cutting funds to the Homeland Security Department’s chemical security program.

“Although the recent tragedy in West, Texas is assumed not to be connected to terrorism, it nevertheless highlights the importance of a functional and efficient CFATS program,” says a legislative report accompanying the budget bill the House Appropriations Committee approved on Wednesday.

“Even more specifically, however, this event highlights the inability of [DHS National Protection and Programs Directorate] to implement the Ammonium Nitrate Security Program, and it raises serious concerns that the department’s chemical security inspectors were unaware that West Fertilizer Co. was handling 2,400 tons of potentially explosive ammonium nitrate.”

The 2,400-ton figure cited by the panel is 12,000 times above the 400-pound threshold for ammonium nitrate that can trigger CFATS regulation of a facility. Homeland Security, though, was not regulating the Texas site under the program. In addition, the department has yet to finalize rules that would specifically govern the handing of ammonium nitrate.

The Republican-controlled committee on Wednesday approved providing the DHS division that manages the Chemical Facility Antiterrorism Standards program with 10 percent less funding than the Obama administration has requested for fiscal 2014. The committee approved $77.1 million for the DHS Infrastructure Security Compliance division. This is only $763,000 less than what Congress allocated for the current budget but $8.7 million below the $85.7 million for which the administration is seeking for the fiscal year that begins on Oct. 1.

In addition, the House bill would withhold $20 million in DHS funds until the department submits “an expenditure plan for the Chemical Facility Antiterrorism Standards program that includes the number of facilities covered by the program, inspectors on-board, inspectors pending, and inspections projected to be completed by Sept. 30, 2014,” according to the legislation.

The Democrat-controlled Senate Appropriations Committee has yet to release its own budget bill for the program.

In their report, House appropriators also backed industry complaints that a new DHS plan for ensuring that workers with access to dangerous chemical facilities do not have terrorist ties will be too onerous on private businesses. The department withdrew a prior personnel surety plan last year after similar complaints. The new proposal released in March makes some improvements over the old plan but still does not go far enough to satisfy industry concerns, the committee says.

For example, in response to industry complaints that the prior proposal was duplicative of other government screening programs in which their workers already participate, the department in its new plan proposes to accept security clearance cards issued by the U.S. Coast Guard, Transportation Security Administration and the Transportation Department.

However, in comments submitted on Monday to the department, Shell Oil complained the CFATS program would not accept such cards “at face value” but instead “will require facilities to install card readers that will allow for electronic verification,” at additional cost to industry.

“We do not understand DHS’ position on this matter,” Shell said. “If DHS trusts us to process personnel properly through our facilities in the first place, why can they not trust us to verify the authenticity of government issued ID cards?”

The Shell comments noted that the CFATS law prevents the department from requiring specific security measures and said the new proposal oversteps this legal limitation. The Institute of Makers of Explosives and the American Trucking Associations submitted similar complaints.

The department is accepting public comments on the proposal through June 4.

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