Web Date: February 7, 2012
DHS Vows To Fix Plant Security Program
The Obama Administration has vowed to fix a troubled federal program intended to safeguard the U.S.’s chemical plants against terrorist attacks. But some Republican lawmakers say new leadership might be required to get the initiative back on track at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
At a Feb. 3 hearing, a panel of the House of Representatives Energy & Commerce Committee examined DHS’s Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards (CFATS). An internal review of the nearly five-year-old program, completed late last year, indicates that serious management problems, including the hiring of unqualified personnel, have hindered its implementation (C&EN, Jan. 9, page 6).
“I assure this committee that the CFATS program is making progress,” said Rand Beers, head of DHS’s National Protection & Programs Directorate. He acknowledged that CFATS “needs a whole lot of work.” But Beers said the department is “correcting course” and has begun work on an 85-item action plan to ensure proper implementation.
CFATS was launched by DHS in June 2007. The congressionally mandated program requires facilities that make, use, or store certain amounts of hazardous chemicals to conduct vulnerability assessments, develop site security plans, and submit those plans to DHS for approval.
“It is my understanding that you have received 4,200 site security plans to date, but not even one has been approved,” Rep. Joseph Barton (R-Texas) said to Beers at the hearing. “You haven’t conducted a single compliance inspection, nor do you have a procedure in place to conduct one,” Barton continued.
Barton further noted that DHS has spent in excess of $90 million per year to administer CFATS. “This is beyond disappointing,” he told Beers. “You have totally mismanaged this program.” Barton suggested that Beers should resign if he can’t fix the problems.
Rep. Charlie Bass (R-N.H.) called the results of the department’s internal assessment “disturbing” and asked Beers whether he thought he should step aside. Beers replied, “If I think I can’t do the job, I will walk away.”
In defending the program, Beers reminded lawmakers that CFATS was quickly developed entirely from scratch as an urgent response to the threat of terrorism. The speed with which the program was started, he said, resulted in some decisions that seemed appropriate at the time, but no longer do.
At the program’s outset, Beers explained, certain roles and responsibilities were envisioned for the staff that, in the end, did not apply. “This resulted in the hiring of some employees whose skills did not match their ultimate job responsibilities and the purchase of some equipment that, in hindsight, appear to be unnecessary for chemical inspectors,” he said.
DHS also initially thought it would need to open more field offices. “These challenges resulted directly from an accelerated stand-up of the program, and while we regret that they occurred, we consider them valuable lessons learned,” Beers told the committee.
CFATS is currently funded through September, which is the end of fiscal 2012. Congress is considering several legislative proposals to extend the program for up to seven years. But Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) said DHS’s internal investigation shows that the underlying legislation is flawed and needs to be comprehensively reformed.
“It’s easy after we get a report of failure to beat up on the people running the program. But Congress has a responsibility as well,” Waxman said.
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