Despite spending hundreds of millions of dollars to bolster security, there are still large gaps in the nation’s chemical infrastructure that could be exploited by terrorists, says a report by a top Senate Republican.
In 2006, the Homeland Security Department began a program to modernize security systems at dangerous and hazardous chemical sites across the U.S., worried the facilities could be easy targets for terrorism.
But a series of investigations by watchdogs and members of Congress have found flaws in the government’s Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards, despite a nearly $600 million price tag.
“Today — eight years later — there is little, if any, evidence to show that the more than half a billion dollars DHS has spent created an effective chemical-security regulatory program or measurably reduced the risk of an attack on our chemical-industrial infrastructure,” said Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
Several Democrats on the committee have said that the DHS has been fixing mistakes in securing chemical sites, but that improvements were still needed.
Sen. Tom Carper, Delaware Democrat and the panel’s chairman, “agrees with ranking member Coburn’s assessment that there is still more work to do in this area, and the existing program needs to be reformed,” a committee spokesman said.
According to Mr. Coburn’s report, an internal DHS review last year found “fundamental problems, errors, inconsistencies and unsupported assumptions in the methodology underlying the whole CFATS program.”
Likewise, a 2013 report by the Government Accountability Office found the program had made several mistakes, including miscalculating the risks of a chemical attack for people living outside the continental U.S. in Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico and Guam.
In fact, out of roughly 4,000 facilities and sites covered under the improved security program, Congress said that just 39 have been inspected to make sure they are complying with increased safety requirements.
“CFATS is not reducing our nation’s risk to a terrorist attack on U.S. chemical infrastructure,” Mr. Coburn’s report concluded. “As the incident in West, Texas, showed last year, there are facilities in the country with dangerous amounts of toxic or flammable chemicals that are not following the CFATS rules, whether because they are ignorant of the law or intentionally choosing not to comply. And DHS does not know about them.”
DHS spokesman S.Y. Lee said the effort is “an important part of our nation’s counterterrorism efforts, helping keep dangerous chemicals out of the hands of those who wish to do us harm.”
“Over the past two years, the CFATS program has made significant progress, advancing programmatically while simultaneously addressing internal management concerns,” he said. “While this progress has helped put the program on a path to success and make the nation more secure, there is still work to be done.”
Mr. Lee said that “much of the important work ahead requires continued engagement with Congress to enact legislation providing multiyear authorization so that the program can continue its current path to success with stability.”
Mr. Coburn’s report acknowledged that some of the problems facing the program have been “created by Congress,” and that the legislative body needs to lay out detailed expectations, help decide which sites may be the most critical to protect and provide appropriate funding.
To that end, the Senate committee worked on an amendment to a bill Wednesday hoping to reform some of the chemical-safety processes. The legislation would better define which chemical facilities are covered, helping DHS to identify “outliers” that have so far slipped under the radar of regulation, and would remove facilities that are handled by other federal safety programs — such as nuclear sites.