US House panel approves site security rules for seven years

14 April 2011 20:00  [Source: ICIS news]

WASHINGTON (ICIS)--A key US House of Representatives panel on Thursday voted to continue for seven years the existing federal rules for antiterrorism security at chemical plants, extending the current programme without any substantive changes.

In what would be seen as a victory for the US chemicals industry, the House Homeland Security Committee’s Subcommittee on Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Protection approved HR-901.

If accepted as-is by the full House and Senate, the bill approved by the subcommittee would extend the existing Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards (CFATS) to 30 September 2018.

Statutory authority for the existing CFATS provisions, first issued in 2007, technically expired at the end of September 2009, but the regulations have been continued by a series of short-term resolutions.

However, the US chemicals industry has been lobbying Congress for a long-term extension of the existing regulations so that plant operators would have some degree of regulatory certainty for a longer period.

Although the extension bill makes no substantive changes to the risk-based security mandate embodied in CFATS, it does clarify that information provided by chemical firms to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for compliance and enforcement purposes may not be disclosed to the public, and should be handled by the department as classified material.

The extension bill also specifically prohibits private right of action, meaning that only the department can file suit against a specific chemical facility under the CFATS statute in order to initiate enforcement by the department.

The US petrochemicals, refining and downstream chemicals sectors had long opposed efforts in Congress to toughen the existing regulations, including authorisation for private lawsuits and measures that would weaken protection for site security data provided to the department.

With the backing of the White House, some in Congress also had wanted to give the department authority to impose inherently safer technology (IST) processes as security measures at chemical facilities. 

That objective, also widely opposed by the industry, was not mentioned in the extension bill approved on Thursday.

However, the bill does not contain a provision for federal pre-emption of state and local laws or regulation of chemical facilities, a measure producers had sought earlier in order to ensure a single, nationwide federal standard without competing and different state laws.

HR-901 states that it does not pre-empt state laws on site security matters - even if they are more stringent than federal requirements - unless there is an actual conflict between local measures and the federal statute.

The CFATS extension bill was still a considerable distance from final approval by Congress.

The HR-901 approved on Thursday by the subcommittee also requires approval by the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and likely faces some opposition among Democrats in the Senate, who earlier had pressed for more stringent site security rules, including an IST mandate.

By: Joe Kamalick
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