Homeland Security:

DHS Is Taking Steps to Enhance Security at Chemical Facilities, but Additional Authority Is Needed

GAO-06-150: Published: Jan 27, 2006. Publicly Released: Feb 27, 2006.

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Terrorist attacks on U.S. chemical facilities could damage public health and the economy. While the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) formerly led federal efforts to ensure chemical facility security, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is now the lead federal agency coordinating efforts to protect these facilities from terrorist attacks. GAO reviewed (1) DHS's actions to develop a strategy to protect the chemical industry, (2) DHS's actions to assist in the industry's security efforts and coordinate with EPA, (3) industry security initiatives and challenges, and (4) DHS's authorities and whether additional legislation is needed to ensure chemical plant security. GAO interviewed DHS, EPA, and industry officials, among others.

As part of a national framework for protecting the chemical sector, DHS is developing a Chemical Sector-Specific Plan. The plan is intended to, among other things, describe DHS's ongoing efforts and future plans to coordinate with federal, state, and local agencies and the private sector; identify chemical facilities to include in the sector, assess their vulnerabilities, and prioritize them; and develop programs to prevent, deter, mitigate, and recover from attacks on chemical facilities. DHS did not estimate when the plan will be completed. To date, DHS has taken a number of actions aimed at protecting the chemical sector from terrorist attacks. DHS has identified 3,400 facilities that, if attacked, could pose the greatest hazard to human life and health and has initiated programs to assist the industry and local communities in protecting chemical facilities. For example, the Buffer Zone Protection Program assists facility owners and local law enforcement with improving the security of areas surrounding plants. DHS also coordinates with the Chemical Sector Coordinating Council, an industry-led group that acts as a liaison for the chemical sector, and with EPA and other federal agencies. The chemical industry is voluntarily addressing plant security, but faces challenges in preparing against terrorism. Some industry associations require member companies to assess plants' vulnerabilities, develop and implement plans to mitigate vulnerabilities, and have a third party verify that security measures were implemented. Other associations have developed security guidelines and other tools to encourage their members to address security. While voluntary efforts are under way, industry officials said that they face challenges in preparing facilities against terrorism, including high costs and limited guidance on how much security is adequate. Because existing laws provide DHS with only limited authority to address security at chemical facilities, it has relied primarily on the industry's voluntary security efforts. However, the extent to which companies are addressing security is unclear. Unlike EPA, for example, which requires drinking water facilities to improve their security, DHS does not have the authority to require chemical facilities to assess their vulnerabilities and implement security measures. Therefore, DHS cannot ensure that facilities are taking these actions. DHS has stated that its existing authorities do not permit it to effectively regulate the chemical industry, and that the Congress should enact federal requirements for chemical facilities. Many stakeholders agreed--as GAO concluded in 2003--that additional legislation placing federal security requirements on chemical facilities is needed. However, stakeholders had mixed views on the contents of any legislation, such as requirements that plants substitute safer chemicals and processes that potentially could reduce the risks present at these facilities.

Matters for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In fall 2006, Congress granted DHS overarching regulatory authority over chemical facility security. Specifically, in the Homeland Security Appropriations Act of 2007, DHS was granted authority to require high-risk chemical facilities to complete vulnerability assessments, develop facility security plans, and implement protective measures necessary to meet DHS-defined performance standards. In April 2007, DHS published the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards (CFATS), the regulations implementing this authority. The new rule gives the department authority to seek compliance through the imposition of civil penalties, of up to $25,000 per day, and the ability to shut non-compliant facilities down. DHS published the rule in the federal register, and as of June 8, 2007, DHS has the authority to enforce the regulations. DHS will publish a list of chemicals of concern and threshold quantities in the Federal Register that must comply with the regulation. From the date that DHS finalized list of chemicals of concern and the threshold quantities are published in the Federal Register, affected facilities that quality for regulation will have 60 days to provide initial information for the risk assessment process. According to DHS officials, the final list should be published by the end of July 2007. Covered facilities contacted by the department will have 120 days from the publication of the regulation in the Federal Register to provide information for the risk assessment process. Other requirements follow that time period. Additional facilities will follow a similar timeframe after future Federal Register publications.

    Matter: To enhance DHS's ability to collect comprehensive information on industry preparedness and better ensure the security of the chemical sector, Congress may wish to consider providing DHS with the enforcement capability to ensure that facilities are following these practices.

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In fall 2006, Congress granted DHS overarching regulatory authority over chemical facility security. Specifically, in the Homeland Security Appropriations Act of 2007, DHS was granted authority to require high-risk chemical facilities to complete vulnerability assessments, develop facility security plans, and implement protective measures necessary to meet DHS-defined performance standards. In April 2007, DHS published the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards (CFATS), the regulations implementing this authority. The new rule gives the department authority to seek compliance through the imposition of civil penalties, of up to $25,000 per day, and the ability to shut non-compliant facilities down. DHS published the rule in the federal register, and as of June 8, 2007, DHS has the authority to enforce the regulations. DHS will publish a list of chemicals of concern and threshold quantities in the Federal Register that must comply with the regulation. From the date that DHS finalized list of chemicals of concern and the threshold quantities are published in the Federal Register, affected facilities that quality for regulation will have 60 days to provide initial information for the risk assessment process. According to DHS officials, the final list should be published by the end of July 2007. Covered facilities contacted by the department will have 120 days from the publication of the regulation in the Federal Register to provide information for the risk assessment process. Other requirements follow that time period. Additional facilities will follow a similar timeframe after future Federal Register publications.

    Matter: To enhance DHS's ability to collect comprehensive information on industry preparedness and better ensure the security of the chemical sector, Congress may wish to consider granting DHS the authority to require high-risk chemical facilities to assess their vulnerability to terrorist attacks and, where necessary, to take corrective action.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In May 2007, DHS released the Chemical Sector Specific Plan.

    Recommendation: Because completion of the Chemical Sector-Specific Plan is critical to DHS's efforts to enhance chemical facility security, the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security should direct DHS to ensure that the Chemical Sector-Specific Plan is completed in a timely manner.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  2. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: DHS does not agree with this recommendation and does not plan to take any action.

    Recommendation: Because completion of the Chemical Sector-Specific Plan is critical to DHS's efforts to enhance chemical facility security, the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security should direct DHS to recognize EPA's expertise in managing chemical risks, jointly study with EPA whether chemical facilities' efforts to reduce vulnerabilities would benefit from the use of technologies that substitute safer chemicals and processes, referred to as "inherently safer technologies."

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

 

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