New information released by the Department of Homeland Security shows the federal program that aims to reduce security risks at chemical-handling facilities has dramatically increased its pace of reviewing and approving site security plans.
In its May fact sheet for the Chemical Facilities Anti-Terrorism Standards program, DHS says it has now approved 85 site-security plans for chemical facilities and has authorized 380 security plans. Just one month earlier, Homeland Security said it had approved 53 and authorized 280 site-security plans.
The agency told Congress in a September 2012 report that it had only approved two site security plans and authorized 73.
Under the CFATS program, which was first authorized by Congress in Section 550 of the DHS Appropriations Act of 2007, facilities with quantities of chemicals above a certain threshold must complete a “top screen” listing the chemicals on site. Following the submission, facilities are assigned to Tier 1 through Tier 4, based on the security threat posed on site. Tier 1 facilities are considered most at risk.
Facilities then complete site-security plans and, once complete, have the security plans authorized. Prior to ultimate approval of the site-security plan, the facility is inspected.
CFATS has been plagued by accusations of inadequately trained workers, significant program waste and duplication, and overreliance on government contractors since its inception. An April 2 report by the DHS Office of Inspector General concluded the lingering problems raised questions as to whether the program could achieve its mission (37 CRR 416, 4/8/13).
Homeland Security called the problems identified in the report “historical” and touted its heightened pace of security plan authorizations and approvals in response to the report (37 CRR 444, 4/15/13).
DHS told a congressional subcommittee in March that it anticipates approving the security plans for facilities posing the greatest potential security risks by October.
According to the May fact sheet, the number of facilities regulated under the CFATS program declined by 31 to 4,351 since April. The fact sheet also reports that more than 3,000 facilities have voluntarily removed, reduced, or modified their holdings of chemicals of interest over the last month, up from 2,900 in April.
No reason was provided for the changes, and DHS was not available for additional comment.
There also was no change in the number of “top screens” completed under the program, according to the fact sheet. More than 44,000 preliminary assessments have been completed by companies.
The CFATS program has come under criticism after it was revealed that a fertilizer facility in West, Texas, had not completed a “top screen” prior to an April 17 catastrophic explosion that killed 15 (37 CRR 468, 4/22/13).
The Congressional Research Service concluded in an April 23 report that CFATS “may not fully reflect” all the sites nationally with quantities of chemicals that could pose security risks (37 CRR 534, 5/6/13).
Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) introduced legislation April 25 that would increase the civil and criminal penalties for facilities that fail to complete a “top screen” under CFATS and called the current regulatory system “toothless” (37 CRR 485, 4/29/13).
Members of both chambers of Congress have said they will take a look at chemical facility regulation in light of the West, Texas, explosion. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) has pledged to hold hearings on “whether there is a need to strengthen” existing chemical security regulations.
The May 2013 fact sheet on the CFATS program is available at http://op.bna.com/env.nsf/r?Open=aada-97klzy.
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