ADVOCATES WANT TERROR

THREAT TRANSPARENCY

By Austin R. Ramsey

Sept. 9, 2019 | American University – Congressional Reporting

Security measures designed to protect American chemical manufacturers from terror threats aren’t being adequately communicated to those industry’s neighbors, according to an environmental justice advocate who testified Wednesday before a House energy and climate change subcommittee.

Michele Roberts, national co-coordinator for the Environmental Justice Health Alliance, told lawmakers that a Department of Homeland Security program that identifies high-risk threats of terror attacks is weighing secrecy over residents’ rights to know.

The Chemical Security Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards, or CFATS, program, must be modified and simplified to the credit of important stakeholders who are being left out, Roberts testified.

“Frankly, the entire CFATS program is secretive and confusing,” she said. “Even experienced advocates are sometimes unsure about aspects of CFATS. Because it's impossible to know for sure what facilities are even required to participate, it's impossible for community members or advocates to fully understand the level of danger, planning, preparedness or lack thereof.”

DHS keeps the identity of high-risk chemical threats secret from the communities that surround them or even the employees who work at them. David Wulf, the DHS acting deputy assistant secretary for infrastructure protection, said the practice is meant to prevent tipping off terrorists about potential threats.

According to Roberts, however, local law enforcement and emergency management personnel are critical first-responders who need to be aware of what threats they may be facing.

John Paul Smith, a legislative representative for the United Steelworkers Union, told the House subcommittee Wednesday that many of his colleagues at a uranium enrichment plant in southern Illinois had no idea the DHS had issued security orders there in 2001. Far worse, he testified, was that thousands of residents around the rural plant had no idea as well.

At issue is whether Congress will extend the program before it expires in April of next year. Republicans narrowly approved a one-year extension this spring, but industry leaders at Wednesday’s hearing called for more stability.

Meanwhile, House Democrats in the Committee on Homeland Security passed a five-year extension in June that included many of Roberts’ recommendations for transparency, but the vote fell along party lines, and lawmakers say the bill would be dead-on-arrival in the Senate.

Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., chastised Democrats on Wednesday for holding up the legislation by chalking it full of transparency measures better suited for outreach organizations like the Environmental Protection Agency or Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

“EPA plays a role when there’s a chemical spill,” Duncan said. “OSHA plays a role when there are worksite accidents or sets forth guidelines for the protection of employees at facilities around the country. That’s their role; that’s their mission … The Department of Homeland Security has a mission, and that is to keep me and you — my fellow Americans — safe from terrorist attacks.”

Michael Kennedy is a Washington attorney who has helped draft CFAT bills for both Republicans and Democrats on the hill. When reached by phone Wednesday afternoon, he said he understands why environmental advocates want more out of the legislation, but this just isn’t the right place to have that fight, he said.

CFATS, Kennedy said, shouldn’t be a partisan issue. By giving Homeland Security more regulatory responsibilities, though, lawmakers are setting themselves up for jurisdictional disputes.

“There are a lot of cooks in the kitchen on this one,” he said. “At one point you want DHS to protect these facilities from terror threats, but then you also want them to do outreach and work with unions. In my experience, I don’t think they’re in the best position to do that. I don’t think they’re good at handling the community stuff. They’re good at doing risk assessments, and that’s pretty much it.”

© 2020 by Austin R. Ramsey