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Safety

Insecurity About Chemical Plants

Facilities: Federal officials defend backlogged risk-assessment program

by Glenn Hess
March 21, 2013 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 91, ISSUE 12

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Credit: House Energy & Commerce Committee
DHS’s Beers (left) and Wulf testified about protecting facilities.
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Credit: House Energy & Commerce Committee
DHS’s Beers (left) and Wulf testified about protecting facilities.

U.S. government officials say they have made “substantial progress” toward resolving problems with the program for securing the nation’s chemical facilities against potential terrorist threats. But government auditors are raising new concerns.

“We are moving forward strategically to address the challenges before us,” Rand Beers, undersecretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), told a subpanel of the House of Representatives Energy & Commerce Committee on March 14. “We will continue to work with stakeholders to get the job done of preventing terrorists from exploiting chemicals or chemical facilities.”

The congressional hearing was held to review the progress DHS has made over the past year to address internal problems that have hindered implementation of the nearly six-year-old Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards (CFATS) program.

CFATS covers 4,380 “high risk” facilities that manufacture, use, or store threshold quantities of certain hazardous chemicals.

An internal DHS memo that was leaked to the media in December 2011 exposed a series of flaws within the program, including wasteful spending and a failure by department officials to approve any of the site security plans that facilities are required to prepare and submit for review.

“Sadly, it has been a very painful process to see how badly CFATS had fallen short of our expectations and to see the struggle, both inside DHS as well as externally, to get the program back on track,” said Rep. John M. Shimkus (R-Ill.), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Environment & the Economy.

David Wulf, deputy director of DHS’s Infrastructure Security Compliance Division, told lawmakers that his office has begun to clear a backlog of approximately 3,100 facility security plans, giving preliminary approval to 261 and signing off on 50 others after completing on-site inspections. The approval process for the 581 facilities thought to pose the greatest potential security risks should be complete by May 2014, he noted.

DHS assigns facilities to one of four risk-based tiers, focusing mostly on the number of human casualties likely to result from a terrorist attack. Facilities in the highest-risk tiers must meet the most stringent security requirements.

But Stephen L. Caldwell of the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, questioned the risk-assessment model that DHS uses to classify facilities, saying the department does not consider a plant’s vulnerability to attack nor the economic consequences of a successful assault. As a result, he said, DHS’s current approach to assigning chemical facilities to risk tiers is “incomplete.”

Shimkus said it appears that DHS is evaluating only “part of the threat, not all of it,” and he suggested that the tier classification methodology needs improvement.

Beers said he is “confident that the general model is correct,” and he pointed out that vulnerability is addressed in the site security plans that facility operators create. “This is not a static program, and we’re looking for assistance and help to see how we might do a better job,” he added.

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