INSIGHT: US chemical site security, 10 years after 9/11

08 September 2011 15:37  [Source: ICIS news]

By Joe Kamalick

US chemicals security 10 years after 9-11WASHINGTON (ICIS)--The US chemicals industry is probably better protected against terrorist plots than at any time in the decade since the 9/11 attacks, but the federal watchdog meant to supervise plant security is on a short funding leash that is likely to get tighter.

According to statistics provided by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which oversees anti-terrorism measures at US chemical sites, out of the some 40,000 facilities that were screened for possible vulnerability to an attack by terrorists seeking massive off-site casualties, about 7,000 sites were given preliminary “high-risk” designations.

Of that initial group of 7,000, more than 2,000 sites were able to drop below the high-risk threshold by eliminating or reducing on-site use or storage of any of the 300-plus “chemicals of interest” (COI) that the department considered a potential target for terrorist attack.

Many of those more than 2,000 sites were university laboratories, hospitals, agrochemical retailers and other facilities that had limited but sufficient amounts of one or another of the specified chemicals to bring them under jurisdiction of the department’s Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards (CFATS). 

By eliminating use or storage or consolidating the supply of a chemical of concern at one instead of multiple sites, those 2,000-plus facilities were able to drop out of the CFATS purview.

Another 500 facilities were dropped from DHS consideration as high-risk sites, according to an AcuTech Consulting Group study prepared for the American Chemistry Council (ACC), after a departmental miscalculation in the high-risk screening process was corrected.

As of the end of August this year, according to a memo from DHS to an ACC official, there were 4,569 chemical sites remaining in one of four high-risk tiers, including 618 facilities that were still awaiting a final tier assignment.

As required by CFATS, the nearly 4,000 sites that have been given final tier placement have conducted security vulnerability assessments (SVAs) and created site security plans (SSPs).

The plans are supposed to remedy any security shortcomings identified in the assessment. 

Those site security plans must be reviewed and approved by the department as meeting its standards, and then implementation of each site’s security improvement plan is to be inspected and given final approval by DHS.

According to industry leaders, chemical plant operators have worked hard to bring their sites up to the department’s standards.

Under CFATS, the department does not tell a specific plant site how to remedy its security shortcomings but rather sets a standard to be met, and then inspects the site to ensure that security measures selected by the operator get the job done.

According to ACC president Cal Dooley, the more than 250 member firms of the council have spent nearly $10bn (€7.1bn) collectively in beefing up security at their plant sites.

Even facilities that fall outside the jurisdiction of CFATS have worked to raise their security profile.

Bill Allmond, vice president for government relations at the Society of Chemical Manufacturers and Affiliates (SOCMA), noted that “many of our member firms already had comprehensive security measures in place prior to the enactment [in 2006] of CFATS”.

“Others have been taking proactive steps to prepare their sites for final compliance with the measures outlined in the site security plans they have submitted to DHS for approval,” he said.

SOCMA’s member firms are specialty, custom and batch chemical producers and represent perhaps the widest spectrum of US chemical makers, including some major firms that have specialty lines. The group’s 300 member companies operate more than 2,000 facilities.

Allmond said that even member firms whose sites do not fall under CFATS jurisdiction “are committed to safeguarding their facilities and materials and are active participants in DHS’s voluntary security programmes”.

By their own accounts, US chemical companies have worked diligently and spent considerable sums in hardening their sites and bringing security measures up to the mark.

But it appears that it is the regulators at DHS that, in some respects, are still standing in the gates, well behind the industry in bringing CFATS into full implementation.

According to the AcuTech study, of the 4,000 site security plans submitted to DHS by high-risk facilities - some of them as long as 18 months ago - only nine have been given letters of go-ahead authorisation by the department, and not one regulated high-risk chemical facility has been given a final on-site inspection and security plan approval.

Allmond said that while the CFATS programme is a good one and works well, “DHS’s implementation has been slower than hoped”.

“For example, some companies have been perplexed about how long it takes the department to approve a site security plan after a regulated facility submits one,” he said, adding: “DHS provided very little time for facilities to submit plans, in some cases imposing significant burden on SOCMA’s smallest members, yet DHS gives itself seemingly too much time to review these plans.”

Allmond also expressed concern about the department’s slow progress on developing a worker vetting system, a key element of CFATS meant to ensure that those who work at a high-risk chemical site do not pose a security risk.

“Industry has supplied [DHS] with various long- and short-term, comprehensive proposals for a viable employee vetting programme that also leverages existing federal credentials that checks applicants against the Terrorist Screening Database,” Allmond said, “but the pilot programme that DHS recently unveiled falls short of what we had hoped to see.”

Others among chemical sector officials worry that the department may have put too much focus on building its cadre of field inspectors, agents that visit plant sites to evaluate security issues, weaknesses, possible remedies and the like.

While that arm of the DHS CFATS team appears to be robust - those agents have made more than 750 on-site plant visits to assist companies in improving security plans - things apparently are not going all that well in the back office.

It was suggested that the department does not have enough CFATS-dedicated funding to build a robust in-house administrative team as well as the cadre of field inspectors, and that the department may have under-estimated the manpower it would need to fully implement the programme.

Those appraisals of shortcomings in DHS enforcement work are not coming only from chemical sector officials.

In a study issued this week, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) said that “more work remains for DHS to address gaps and weaknesses in its current operational and implementation efforts”.

GAO is the audit and investigation arm of Congress.

The GAO analysis, done at the request of the Homeland Security Committees of both the Senate and House of Representatives, does give DHS high marks for doing so much in the relatively short time since the department was cobbled together from 22 separate agencies in 2003.

However, said the GAO report, “while DHS has made progress, its transformation remains high risk due to its management challenges”.

In addition to the slow progress with CFATS, the GAO study cited ongoing lapses in DHS work on border, aviation and cyber security, detection of nuclear materials in vehicles and shipping containers, and in other areas of concern.

“Given DHS’s leadership responsibilities in homeland security, it is critical that its programmes are operating as efficiently and effectively as possible, are sustainable, and continue to mature to address pressing security needs,” said the GAO.

“Eight years after its creation and 10 years after September 11, 2001, DHS has indeed made significant strides in protecting the nation,” the GAO said. “But it has yet to reach its full potential.”

To reach that full potential, certainly in terms of chemical facility security enforcement, the department apparently needs more funding - and that might be a bridge too far when Congress and the administration are looking for ways to cut spending, not increase it. 

 ($1 = €0.71)

By: Joe Kamalick
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