Chemical plantsDHS chemical plant security program hobbled by problems, poor oversight

Published 1 May 2013

A DHS program responsible for the security of chemical facilities, such as the West Fertilizer Company plant in Texas, has been ineffective owing to a number of issues, leading federal investigators to wonder “whether it can achieve its mission, given the challenges the program continues to face.”

A DHS program  responsible for the security of chemical facilities such as the West Fertilizer Company plant in Texas, has been ineffective owing to a number of issues, leading federal investigators to wonder “whether it can achieve its mission, given the challenges the program continues to face.”

The Austin Statesman reports that DHS inspector general report released in March highlighted  alarmingly poor planning and even worse execution in almost every aspect of the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards (CFATS) program. Moreover, the IG also fund cases in which congressional overseers were misled when they  were told that the program was improving.

The West Fertilizer Company, along with thousands of other chemical facilities, are required to fill out a detailed security survey and send it to DHS so the department  can determine the level of  terrorist threat risk the facility faces.

West Fertilizer  never filled out a survey.  DHS points out, though, that its CFATS program  would not have prevented the explosion at the plant which killed fourteen people, injured 200 others, and destroyed 142 homes and apartments in the town of West.

“Their mandate has nothing to do with safe storage,” wrote chemical expert Patrick Coyle on his Chemical Facility Security News blog recently. “They are responsible for overseeing the secure storage of the material.”

DHS says that had the  chemical plant safety been more tightly implemented and monitored,  it could have boosted collaborative efforts between the plant and first responders. Such a plan would require a closer look at “specific threats, vulnerabilities, or risks,” according to DHS.

When CFATS was launched, an academy to train inspectors was opened. The academy was opened, however, before the program’s parameters were determined, and as a result the training  conducted was eventually considered ineffective. The training program was shut down in the summer of 2011.

Investigators in the program also had problems with the software used to figure out a facility’s risk level, as well as the data collection methods to determine a facility’s vulnerability. There were also problems with  coming up with plans to prevent a theft or attack, and such plans were deemed incomplete.

“A common explanation by program officials for the challenges is that CFATS is a new program,” federal investigators wrote. “However, it has been more than 5 years since the program was created, almost $443 million has been appropriated, and no facility has gone through the entire CFATS regulatory process.”

The lack of information led to significant delays in analyzing and approving responses from facilities across the country. As a result of the delays, the first security plan was not approved until late 2012, although plans were being submitted by plants since 2009. The delays were so bad that a DHS working group estimated that it would take seventy years to work through the security reviews of all chemical plants in the United States.

Program officials said that they have since made a number of changes to their data collection system and analysis and are now approving plant security plans at a much faster pace. Investigators found out, however, that officials used ambiguous language during congressional briefings when it came to saying just how much progress had been made.

The Statesman notes that according to the IG report, officials who were interviewed by investigators said the CFATS program inspectors did not have a full understanding of the chemical business.

“Industry officials said it seemed that people developing the CFATS Program thought chemical facilities were simple; as though each facility had one plant and required one fence,” the report stated. “In reality, there are sites that encompass 10,000 acres, with multiple plants making a variety of products with multiple chemicals.”

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