Occupational Safety & Health Reporter℠

Bill to Preserve Chemical Security Program Passed by House

Jan. 9, 2019, 12:35 AM

The House passed a bill to extend an expiring chemical facility security program, with Democrats and Republicans hoping to buy time for negotiations on its future.

The vote Jan. 8 was 414-3 in favor of the bill, with 188 Republicans joining 226 Democrats in support of H.R. 251. The legislation extends the Department of Homeland Security’s Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards program, which is scheduled to expire Jan. 18.

The program’s future is in doubt, with lawmakers in disagreement over proposed exemptions and enforcement limitations. House lawmakers of both parties say it should continue until the differences are worked out, but several senators have called for its closure absent a deal.

“We cannot let this critical national security program fall victim to this political game of chicken,” Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), the chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, said on the House floor. Thompson introduced the bill with the support of the panel’s ranking member and the chairman and ranking member of the Energy and Commerce Committee.

Under the program, companies with large quantities of more than 300 specified chemicals must submit chemical and site security information to Homeland Security officials. The department uses the information to determine whether a facility’s security plans can prevent terrorist theft or diversion of the chemicals. If not, the department can order companies to take corrective action.

Should the program expire, companies wouldn’t be required to comply. That would “increase the risk to our country and create uncertainty across the chemical industry,” Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said in a letter to lawmakers last year.

Senate Action

The bill now moves to the Senate, where prospects are uncertain. A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has said the bill is unlikely to see floor action soon, while a key lawmaker, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), supports letting the program expire unless lawmakers approve significant changes. Staff-level negotiations between the House and Senate to avert an expiration late last year failed to reach an agreement, a congressional aide told Bloomberg Law.

Johnson, who leads the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, supported legislation (S. 3405) in 2018 to add new exemptions and enforcement limitations to the program that some Democrats opposed. The program shouldn’t continue without those changes, Johnson and Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) said in a letter last year. Just after the House vote, Johnson released a statement saying he won’t support the bill.

Organizations representing major chemical companies and distributors have said they support the program continuing in some form.

The American Chemistry Council in Washington, which represents major chemical companies affected by the regulation, in a statement to Bloomberg Law called the vote a “first step” to making the kind of changes called for in the Johnson legislation.

Matt McKinney, a spokesman for the National Association of Chemical Distributors in Arlington, Va., said in an email to Bloomberg Law the group continues to support a multiyear reauthorization “to ensure the security of our nation’s chemical infrastructure remains a top priority.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Sam Pearson in Washington at spearson@bloombergenvironment.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Cynthia Harasty at charasty@bloomberglaw.com; Martha Mueller Neff at mmuellerneff@bloomberglaw.com

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