DHS eager to start monitoring chemical plant safety

Published 23 February 2006

With all the criticism leveled at DHS for this mishap or that blunder, we may forget that DHS has many good people who do many good things. All they need is the means and the opportunity. Example: The proposed DHS budget contains a $10 million request for an office to oversee chemical facilities and their security measures. We have criticized this amount as “paltry” [HSDW 2/7/06] — but, still, it is better than nothing, and in the hands of the right people and with the right approach a lot of good can done with it to enhance the country’s security. The problem now is that Congress has not yet passed legislation to extend DHS regulatory authority over chemical plants. Assuming Congress will pass the necessary legislation, then, say Robert Stephan, assistant secretary for infrastructure protection at DHS, the new money will go toward standing up and rolling out the necessary capabilities and equipment to support a rule-making process regarding chemical plant security in the coming year. “Right now, we don’t have a robust enough office to deal with chemical security as a regulatory process inside my shop,” Stephan told CQ. “So the $10 million would support the first year’s worth of activity to support the rulemaking that’s going to be necessary.” Without statutory authority, however, DHS has little ability to regulate the chemical industry.

We have been critical of the chemical industry’s evasion of responsibility for the public welfare, and its stubborn resistance, until very recently, to any meaningful security measures in its more than 15,000 U.S. plants, including the 400 or so which pose the highest risk of mass-casualty catastrophes. Stephan is very diplomatic when comparing the security record of the chemical industry to that of other industries, but the message is unmistaken: “Business writ large has made a lot of improvements [on security issues], but the progress has not necessarily been even across the board. We have to take care of that.”

The chemical industry has an industry-developed, voluntary security program. There are two problems with it: First, it is meaningless. An industry insider who was involved in developing it calls it “window dressing” and a “sorry joke.” Second, even though the program is exceedingly light on meaningful security, many chemical plants, including many of the most dangerous ones, have not even bothered to sign up for it. Again Stephan has to be diplomatic, so he lauds the voluntary industry steps to strengthen security, which include the installation of video cameras and other barrier defenses. He worries, though, that some facilities have not bought into the program sufficiently. “There are still some facilities out there that have not been signed up to any voluntary security practices, so we have no way of measuring where they are at this point,” Stephan said. Moreover, Stephan said, some plants may be following the voluntary security measures, “but we’re not sure they’re getting all the bang for their buck.”

Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine), the chairwoman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, has introduced a bill (S 2145) that would require vulnerability assessments and security plans from chemical plants. If chemical plants failed to address the risk of a terrorist attack, DHS secretary could shut down high-risk facilities immediately. The bill has bipartisan support, but a mark up date has yet to be determined. On the House side, Representative Peter King (R-N.Y.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said his panel would address the issue of chemical plant security this session. King is working with Representative Bennie Thompson (D-Mississippi), ranking member on the Homeland panel, on legislation both will introduce.

-read more in Benton Ives-Halperin’s CQ report (sub. req.)