INSIGHT: Site security plan years behind and lacking key element

15 May 2014 17:38  [Source: ICIS news]

By Joe Kamalick

US DHS still behind in site security plansWASHINGTON (ICIS)--The six-year-old federal effort to ensure that 4,000 US high-risk chemical facilities are protected against terrorists will take many more years to complete, and it still lacks background checks for plant workers and vendors, two separate watchdog reports said this week.

Reports by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) submitted for a Senate hearing said that while progress has been made by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in implementing the complex programme, it is still beset by problems, delays and a crucial shortcoming - personnel surety.

The separate analyses were presented to the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee on the department’s troubled Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards (CFATS).

Mandated by Congress in 2007, CFATS requires owners and operators of chemical production, storage, transit or use sites deemed to be at high risk for a potential terrorist attack to meet certain DHS criteria in toughening their facilities against assault or exploitation.

The rules require that operators assess their sites’ current security provisions and draw up an improved site security plan (SSP) that is subject to the department’s review and approval.

Plant owners and operators may choose which security measures they think best to meet the CFATS criteria, but those improvement steps are subject to an on-site inspection by DHS agents and final approval.

Companies that fail to comply or do not meet department security standards are subject to fines, and DHS has ultimate authority to shut down non-compliant facilities.

The CFATS programme had a shaky start and later was bogged down in controversy amid charges of mismanagement, overspending, inappropriate equipment purchases and erratic personnel hiring and assignments.

After an internal DHS audit of the programme in 2011 found widespread mismanagement, a key senator declared that CFATS was “a $500m failure”.

Reforms were instituted in 2012, and this week’s CRS report noted that while “DHS has had challenges in implementing the CFATS regulations … its performance has improved following the 2011 internal review”.

According to separate testimony submitted by DHS, as of April this year the department had reviewed and approved 657 site security plans from among 1,324 submitted by about a third of the 4,133 high-risk sites subject to the CFATS rules.

According to more recent data released this month, the number of approved security plans is up to around 750.

However, of the 657 sites that had been awarded security plan approvals (as of April) by the department, DHS agents have conducted only 23 on-site compliance inspections.

Over the last six months, said CRS, “DHS has been authorising 104 and approving 53 site security plans monthly”.

“That said, DHS is still in the process of addressing the initial round of submissions from regulated facilities,” the CRS report said.

“At the current level of performance,” said the analysis, “it appears likely that DHS will require several years to authorise the remaining SSPs, and several years beyond that to inspect the facilities and approve the SSPs.”

And even though the department reports that as of this month it has approved around 750 site security plans, GAO said in its report that those approvals actually are incomplete and “conditional”.

They are conditional, said GAO, because one of the key elements of the 18 risk-based performance standards mandated by CFATS - personnel surety - is not yet in force.

The CRS also noted that critical shortcoming.

“As a separate matter,” said CRS, “one of the performance standards - personnel surety, under which facilities are to perform background checks and ensure appropriate credentials for personnel and visitors as appropriate” is still under development.

The GAO noted that between 2009 and 2011 DHS gathered information from regulated firms and other stakeholders on how the personnel surety standard and background checks were to be set up, and the department submitted a proposal for review by the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB). OMB must approve most major regulations.

But under broad industry opposition to that background check proposal, DHS pulled it back from OMB review and started over.

CRS said that the department began work in March last year on a new personnel surety plan and submitted it to OMB in February this year.

But as GAO noted, “according to DHS officials, it is unclear when the [personnel surety] standard will be finalised”.

While the department has yet to develop and deploy that critical background check personnel process - and by the CRS and GAO accounts will need years more to complete site security plans and inspections - the task facing DHS could well get bigger still.

As the GAO study noted, in addition to the known 4,100 chemical facilities subject to CFATS regulation, there may be many more that have thus far escaped notice.

GAO cited the tragic fertiliser facility explosion in West, Texas, in April last year - which killed 15 people, injured 200 others and caused some $100m in damage to the small town - as the trigger for what might become a much broader CFATS regulated community.

In the wake of that blast at the West Fertiliser facility, President Barack Obama issued an executive order establishing a six-agency federal task force to improve safety and security at chemical facilities across the nation.

Despite its massive inventories of highly explosive fertilisers, the West Fertiliser facility apparently had not been identified as subject to the CFATS programme.

On the assumption that there likely are other outliers, GAO said that “DHS has begun to work with other agencies to identify facilities that should have reported their chemical holdings to CFATS but may not have done so”.

Under Obama’s executive order, member agencies of the federal task force “are sharing information to identify additional facilities that are to be regulated under CFATS”, the GAO noted.

So even as DHS struggles to complete its review and inspections of more than 4,100 existing regulated sites - a process that the watchdog reports said will take many more years - an as yet unknown number of additional covered sites soon may be added to the task.

By: Joe Kamalick
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