Chertoff, lawmaker clash over chemical security bill

Measure would require the department to issue new security regulations by October 2009.

House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., has accused Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff of playing "political games" with new chemical security legislation, and says he doubts the department wants to collaborate on a final bill.

The dispute erupted this week as the department and Thompson exchanged letters regarding the committee's chemical security bill, which was marked up in March and reported out on a near party-line vote.

The department's office of legislative affairs sent Thompson a letter Tuesday saying it believes the bill "will have a negative impact upon current and future efforts to secure the nation's high-risk chemical facilities."

Thompson fired back a letter Thursday to Chertoff, charging: "I had hoped to partner with you to make it a reality but am resigned to the fact that you would rather [play] political games."

The department objected to several provisions, including one that would allow states to pass chemical security laws that place more requirements on facilities than the department's regulations. The department also opposes a provision under which chemical facilities might be required to implement processes and technologies to mitigate the consequences of a terrorist attack. The facilities would have to submit a list of alternatives to the department and implement them if the department determined they are feasible and would reduce risks.

The bill would require the department to issue new security regulations by October 2009. But the department said "efforts to secure the nation's chemical facilities would be impeded by the requirement to commence a new regulatory effort." Additionally, the department said, the bill might dissuade facilities from complying with current regulations in anticipation of new ones.

Thompson said he was perplexed by the letter, noting that the bill was the product of a year of meetings and hearings with Homeland Security officials. He said the timing of the letter was "highly suspect" because it was sent before the Energy and Commerce Environment Subcommittee held a hearing on chemical security Thursday.

"In light of this action, I am doubtful that DHS is still interested in continuing our good faith efforts at collaboration on this critical homeland security initiative," Thompson wrote, adding that issues in the letter "represent a misunderstanding of the legislation." He disputed the department's claim that new regulations would have an adverse effect, saying they "would bring needed predictability to the industry and comprehensively strengthen security over the chemical sector."

He said more productive for Homeland Security to tell Congress what additional resources it would need to implement new regulations, noting that the bill authorizes $900 million over three years. He added the department makes a "baseless" claim in opposing a provision of the bill requiring facilities to implement new security actions if they are deemed feasible, and said it can already mandate such security measures.

One GOP aide said Friday that concerns raised by the department are not new. "Our members raised the exact same points over three months ago when this bill was being drafted, yet now Chairman Thompson is somehow trying to point fingers at DHS," said the aide. "What's more, we could have also prevented the current battle with Energy and Commerce had the Democrats made consolidating our committee's jurisdiction a priority ... We saw this coming."