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House Could Withhold DHS Funds While Waiting for Chemical Security Report

BEEE/Shutterstock.com

House appropriators are looking to withhold $20 million in fiscal 2014 funds from the Homeland Security Department until it delivers a spending plan and progress report for its beleaguered chemical security program.

A spending bill released on Tuesday by the Republican-controlled House Appropriations Committee allocates $77.1 million for the DHS Infrastructure Security Compliance Division, which is responsible for implementing the controversial Chemical Facility Antiterrorism Standards. This is $763,000 less than what Congress approved for this budget year and $8.7 million less than what the Obama administration has requested for fiscal 2014, committee spokeswoman Jennifer Hing noted.

In addition, the 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, inspections pending, and inspections projected to be completed by Sept. 30, 2014,” according to the legislation.

Lawmakers have scrutinized the CFATS program in recent years, particularly since an internal memo reporting numerous problems with the initiative was leaked to the press in late 2011. The program – which is meant to help protect high-risk chemical plants and other facilities from sabotage – was suffering from a litany of management issues and department personnel were slow to complete reviews of site security plans, according to the memo.

Last month’s fertilizer plant explosion that leveled homes and killed at least 14 people in West, Texas added to Capitol Hill concern about the program’s effectiveness. The CFATS program was not regulating the facility, even though it held enough dangerous chemicals to trigger coverage.

For fiscal 2013 the House Appropriations Committee had sought a 40 percent funding cut for the program. This year’s figure represents a 10 percent cut below what the administration is seeking for the infrastructure security division that runs the program – not counting the additional $20 million in department funds that would be withheld until the department submits the information lawmakers are requesting. Hing said the money would specifically be held back from the division's parent body, the National Protection and Programs Directorate.

Earlier this month, the department released some updated statistics for the program, but they do not appear to include all of the information House Republicans are seeking. A DHS fact sheet says the program has approved 85 security plans following on-site inspections and has provided preliminary authorization for another 380 plans.

As of last September, the program had only completed two on-site inspections and authorized 73 plans.

According to the May 2013 fact sheet, a total of 4,351 facilities are currently covered by the program.

The Democrat-controlled Senate Appropriations Committee has yet to release its homeland security spending bill.

(Image via BEEE/Shutterstock.com)

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