Proper Implementation of Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards Is a Must
Chemical security is arguably the most significant homeland security vulnerability confronting the United States today. Deadly chemicals, particularly gases such as chlorine, ammonia, and sulfur dioxide, represent one of the few genuine terrorist nightmare scenarios that threaten hundreds of thousands of people. And it is not just a theoretical vulnerability; insurgents in Iraq have attempted to use chlorine gas tanker trucks as improvised weapons
The House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Transportation Security and Infrastructure will address some of these threats today in a hearing on “Chemical Security: The Implementation of the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards and the Road Ahead.”
Thousands of facilities are affected by the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards—which was updated earlier this year and lists the quantities above which facilities that manufacture, store, or use hazardous chemicals that pose a security risk if released, ignited, or stolen, must complete a top-screen survey—but DHS currently has fewer people devoted to chemical security nationwide that we have securing a single neighborhood in Baghdad. There’s no question that DHS will need greater capacity to make sure that all facilities are complying with the standards.
In a conference call in April, DHS officials acknowledged that implementation would be handled by a staff of 33 people at headquarters and 40 field representatives, despite the fact that the DHS top-screen could involve several thousand chemical facilities. DHS has added a few dozen more people to CFATS implementation, but not enough, and certainly nothing approaching a domestic “surge” to ensure the United States is as safe as it can be from terrorism, natural disasters, or man-made risks.
Federal regulation of chemical security is an important step and long overdue, but it remains to be seen how aggressively DHS will exercise its authority. DHS was forced by the Office of Management and Budget to reduce the threshold quantities of chemicals that could trigger government oversight, an unfortunate example of how the Bush administration has consistently put ideology—blind faith in markets—ahead of security.
Aggressive congressional oversight as reflected in today’s hearing is important, but more will need to be done over the next two years. DHS’ chemical security regulatory authority is only temporary and sunsets in 2009. The current approach, while useful, is overly focused on physical improvements—fencing, lighting, gates and access controls. Congress, working with the next administration, will need to devise incentives to push chemical manufacturers, retailers, transporters, and users to transform how they operate in order to make our economy and society as secure as possible. Change must occur system-wide, not just at fixed points. Federal regulation should be comprehensive and consistent, not splintered with different or conflicting standards depending on where a facility is located or what it does.
For more information on the Center’s chemical security policy, please see:
- Toxic Trains and the Terrorist Threat
- Preventing Toxic Terrorism: How Some Chemical Facilities Are Removing Danger to American Communities