A FUNDAMENTAL understanding of chemistry or chemical engineering does not come overnight. Despite this fact, the government is holding a crash course to try to provide just that.
The Department of Homeland Security is required by law to ensure the safety of chemical facilities, yet many of its employees lack a basic understanding of the industry they're charged with evaluating. To bridge the gap, the department has implemented the Chemical Boot Camp program for employees who are unfamiliar with chemical plants and the business of chemistry.
DHS began Chemical Boot Camps in 2006 to increase awareness and understanding of security at chemical facilities for policy- and decisionmakers. The program coordinates field trips that enable DHS employees and other government staff to get a feel for the day-to-day operations of a working chemical installation. It also allows members of both groups to speak directly with chemical facility representatives about any questions or concerns the representatives may have and to address questions boot campers might have.
"The Chemical Boot Camps are designed to be information-sharing visits that build and strengthen the private-public partnerships between the chemical sector and DHS," says Amy Kudwa, a spokeswoman for the department.
Currently, DHS is running a boot camp that it hopes will be completed by mid-November. DHS will not identify the facilities or the number of installations participating, but the agency tells C&EN that the facilities taking part are in the Baltimore; Wilmington, Del.; or Washington, D.C., areas.
To help find chemical facilities willing to host boot camp tours, DHS reached out to members of the Synthetic Organic Chemical Manufacturers Association, according to the trade group. Bill Allmond, SOCMA's government relations director, sees the boot camp as an opportunity for its members.
"We expect that these sessions will educate regulators, who have limited knowledge about specialty batch manufacturing, about the critical role SOCMA members play in the chemical supply chain," Allmond explains.
Since the program's inception, DHS has worked with different chemical companies that voluntarily host tours to showcase the nuances of the industry, such as technologies, infrastructure, location, and security measures. The Chemical Boot Camp tours have included compressed gas plants, chemical manufacturing and distribution centers, and storage facilities, Kudwa notes.
Field-trip participants have primarily been DHS employees involved in voluntary programs for chemical plant security, such as the Web-based Chemical Security Awareness Training, the Chemical Security Summit, and the Security Seminar & Exercise Series with State Chemical Industry Councils. Department employees who oversee DHS-sponsored research on technologies that support homeland security have also participated.
Not included, however, are DHS inspectors responsible for enforcing mandatory regulations. These individuals receive more rigorous training, according to DHS's Kudwa.
Chemical Boot Camps are also open to other government employees including congressional staffers working with programs or committees with jurisdiction over the chemical industry.
During the field trips, participants have a few hours to examine a chemical facility's plant processes, control systems, security operations, incident management, emergency response, and safety protocols, Kudwa says. The tours are typically coordinated through the facility's security manager, she explains.
AGENCY WATCHDOGS, however, question whether the Chemical Boot Camp program is effective. They say a few-hour tour is only going to scratch the surface of the vast amount of knowledge required to thoroughly understand safety and security at an individual chemical facility. Kudwa never alludes to the effectiveness of the program or the metrics that are being used to measure the program's success.
Rick Hind, legislative director of Greenpeace, does not believe the program is complete without including tours of neighboring communities. Such tours are important to underscore the potential impact of a security breach in terms of lives that would be harmed.
The scope of the boot camp is not Hind's only criticism. He notes that DHS has taken an "industry friendly" approach to regulating the chemical enterprise so far, and he is skeptical that the boot camps can provide the type of education that participants need to understand and safely regulate the industry.
"Our military often calls boot camp basic training," he says, adding that DHS should view its program in the same way. He contends that advanced training that builds on the boot camp is what's really needed to help employees do their jobs better.
For example, Hind doesn't believe that the boot camp is a suitable substitute for a graduate-level course that prepares DHS employees to better oversee and assist the chemical sector.
For now, however, DHS has no plans to include elements such as tours of neighboring communities in its program. Instead, Kudwa maintains that the department intends the program to give its employees insight into the chemical sector and to continue to strengthen DHS's ties to the chemical community.