Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

February 27, 2006

GAO issues report on chemical security

Filed under: Infrastructure Protection — by Christian Beckner on February 27, 2006

The Government Accountability Office released a report today on chemical security. The report provides a very solid and detailed overview of the state of chemical security today, and makes a strong case that DHS needs expanded authority to regulate security in the sector:

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.

The report notes that DHS disagrees with the need to regulate or mandate the use of alternative “safer technologies” as a tool to enhance security. But the GAO argues that DHS should be supportive of measures consider alternative technologies, based on DHS’s own assessment of the threat:

We continue to believe, however, that the use of safer technologies may have the potential to reduce security risks for at least some chemical facilities by making them less attractive to a terrorist attack and reducing the severity of the potential consequences of an attack. While we recognize in our report that inherently safer technologies can shift risks onto other facilities or the transportation sector, there may also be instances where implementing safer technologies could reduce the likelihood and severity of a terrorist attack. In fact, DHS’s July 2004 draft of the Chemical Sector-Specific Plan states that inherently safer chemistry and engineering practices can prevent or delay a terrorist incident. The draft also notes that it is important to make sure that facility owners/operators consider alternate ways to reduce risk, such as inherently safer design, implementing just-in-time manufacturing, or replacing high-risk chemicals with safer alternatives. Therefore, we continue to believe that studying the costs and security benefits of using safer technologies would be a worthwhile effort.

I’m agnostic on this particular issue for pragmatic reasons: the longstanding quarrel over it has delayed the passage of any chemical security legislation, and we can’t afford to let additional years slip by without developing some semblance of a regulatory framework for the sector. I’m starting to sound like a broken record, but the Collins-Lieberman chemical security legislation is sensible and balanced, and it should be passed as soon as possible.

The report also mentions the National Strategy for Securing the Chemical Sector which was mandated by the FY 2006 DHS appropriations legislation, and was due to Congress on Feb. 10th, 2006. That was more than two weeks ago. Is the report done? If so, why hasn’t it been publicly released yet? It deserves a public vetting.

Update (2/28): GovExec’s story on the report.

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2 Comments »

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Comment by William R. Cumming

February 28, 2006 @ 4:51 am

The report would have been more helpful if it made clear that no new regulatory authority was given DHS in the Homeland Security Act of 2002. That statute is largely an organizational arrangement and OMB would never allow any department or agency to seek new regulatory authority. That stated, EPA rather than DHS should be the regulator of chemical plant security for several reasons not the least is the the NCP (National Contingency Plan) is co-chaired in part by EPA and is the way that the feds respond to chemical accidents/spills/incidents and events. There is a difference even in the common law in the treatment of inherently dangerous activity like blasting or in this case the production and transport of chemicals and non-ultrahazardous materials. The chemical industry is probably not regulated enough, but to the extent it is that is done by EPA and there is no sense in DHS getting into arguments with EPA or safety and security issues. Witness that discourse between NRC and Energy over nuclear system and materials regulations. Again, I would be surprised if the first new regulatory authority Congress and the President gave DHS waa chemical plant security. The relationship to safety is just too vague for now. Let EPA be the regulator, even though underfunded and understaffed.

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Pingback by Homeland Security Watch » Blog Archive » Chemical security legislation update

March 6, 2006 @ 6:48 pm

[...] The trade publication Water Policy Report (subscription req’d) has a lengthy story this week on the state of chemical security legislation. The story notes disagreement between DHS and the EPA over who should have authority on this issue, an issue brought to light most recently in last week’s GAO report. [...]

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