Last-minute deal extends program to protect chemical plants

Last-minute deal extends program to protect chemical plants
© Greg Nash

Senators have struck a last-minute deal to extend a program regulating how manufacturers must guard against potential terror attacks, calming fears from business groups about a lapse.

The Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards (CFATS) program was set to officially sunset Thursday, a scenario that worried industry groups who warned that not having the regulations in place could pose a national security risk.

But Congress will now take up a bill that will reauthorize CFATS for 15 months, Sen. Gary PetersGary Charles PetersFBI Agents Association calls on Congress to make 'domestic terrorism' a federal crime Senators renew request for domestic threats documents from FBI, DOJ after shootings Overnight Defense: Dems talk Afghanistan, nukes at Detroit debate | Senate panel advances Hyten nomination | Iranian foreign minister hit with sanctions | Senate confirms UN ambassador MORE (D-Mich.) told The Hill on Wednesday.

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“Hopefully we’ll get it passed and can continue the program and it’ll go for 15 months,” Peters said, adding that senators are prioritizing the measure.

“That certainly gives us time to take another look at the legislation and make additional reforms and changes, but it gives us enough time to do that in a thoughtful way,” he said.

The House earlier this month overwhelmingly voted in favor of a two-year extension of the program, without making any reforms.

But Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonGOP senators call for Barr to release full results of Epstein investigation FBI Agents Association calls on Congress to make 'domestic terrorism' a federal crime Senators renew request for domestic threats documents from FBI, DOJ after shootings MORE (R-Wis.), who has authored legislation that would make changes to the program, initially called that measure “unacceptable.”

Peters, the new ranking member on the committee, said Johnson has now agreed to the 15-month extension.

A Johnson aide confirmed the deal, saying the senator agreed to the extension "to give members time to work this year on much-needed reforms.”

The breakthrough ends a political fight that dragged on since the last Congress.

CFATS was enacted in 2007 and is now housed in the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

The program applies to a wide range of facilities that house or plan to store any substance included on a list of more than 300 flagged chemicals. That includes facilities used by manufacturers, chemical plants and agricultural businesses. Many of the flagged substances, such as fertilizers, could be used to create explosive devices.

Johnson had been pushing for changes to the program, introducing legislation last year that would reform the standards.

Johnson argued that DHS does not effectively implement measures to gauge the effectiveness of the program and he worried about burdensome regulations on businesses. His bill would remove regulations that are already covered by other agencies and require assessments on the program's impact.

But when Johnson asked for unanimous consent for his legislation in November, Sen. Tom CarperThomas (Tom) Richard CarperAmerica is in desperate need of infrastructure investment: Senate highway bill a step in the right direction FARA should apply to Confucius Institutes The 23 Republicans who opposed Trump-backed budget deal MORE (D-Del.) blocked the bill, saying the effects of some of the proposed reforms haven’t been fully studied and “could expose our communities to significant harm.”

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen NielsenKirstjen Michele NielsenTrump casts uncertainty over top intelligence role Juan Williams: Trump, his allies and the betrayal of America Trump taps Texas Rep. Ratcliffe to replace Dan Coats as top intelligence official MORE had also pushed for a clean reauthorization of the program, promising to order an audit of CFATS “to assess additional opportunities to enhance program effectiveness and efficiency.”

"The Department agrees that critical review of the program's structure is important," Nielsen wrote in a November letter to then-House Homeland Security Committee ranking member Bennie ThompsonBennie Gordon ThompsonHillicon Valley: House panel subpoenas 8chan owner | FCC takes step forward on T-Mobile-Sprint merger | Warren wants probe into FTC over Equifax settlement | Groups make new push to end surveillance program House Homeland Security Committee subpoenas 8chan owner What Mississippi ICE raids mean for vulnerable workers MORE (D-Miss.). "However, we believe that if the program were to lapse — as a result of the current sun-setting provision — it would increase the risk to our country and create uncertainty across the chemical industry."

Industry groups that had pressured Congress to extend the program quickly applauded the deal Wednesday, saying that keeping the regulations in place will help manufacturers know what safety standards they should be complying with to prevent a scenario like a terror attack.

"Continuing this important program ensures the chemical industry and regulators work together to keep our nation’s chemical facilities secured against potential terrorist attacks," Eric Byer, president of the National Association of Chemical Distributors, wrote in an email. "We thank Sens. Ron Johnson and Gary Peters for their leadership in supporting a program vital to our national security.”

Laura Berkey-Ames, the director of energy and resources policy at the National Association of Manufacturers, said the move will give industry members certainty moving forward on what kind of regulations they should have in place. 

However, she urged lawmakers to quickly act on a new authorization bill to avoid a similar scenario in 15 months.

"We also want to make sure that Congress does move forward with this and does not delay on the reauthorization for the sake of our national security," Berkey-Ames said.

"Congress needs to send a strong message that the United States remains prepared and resilient in the face of the threat of terrorism."

Updated at 3:26 p.m.