Thursday, January 21, 2010
Reader Comment – 01-20-10 Fertilizer
Red Team used a comment on a continuing gasoline blog conversation to bring up another explosive issue; fertilizer. Red Team wrote: “I think one potential problem with DHS CFATS is that it really does not consider certain fertilizers, I'm not going into details, as a significant issue. It appears that DHS has not looked at the history of various fertilizers and their destructive nature and relative safe handling characteristics. Terrorist groups within the US and outside the US have used this substance on many occasions.” I’m sorry, but I don’t think that that description is quite fair. I’m assuming that Red Team is talking about ammonium nitrate; a very common fertilizer that is certainly useable as an explosive ala Timothy McVay. Ammonium nitrate (AN) is actually two separate chemicals of interest in Appendix A (one as an release-explosive and one as a theft/diversion IED precursor) so this fertilizer is included in CFATS. Now, to be fair to Red Team, DHS has had some problems with their regulation of AN. First off, AN used on actual agricultural facilities is not currently captured in the CFATS process because of the ‘temporary’ Top Screen exception for such facilities. That exception was partially in response to farm interest lobbying efforts (one of the most powerful lobbies in the US) and partially a recognition that most ag-facilities were a little too remote to be much of a terrorist target. The more important AN related problem that DHS has been experiencing has nothing to do with CFATS (other than the same people will be responsible), the Congressionally mandated regulation of the sale of AN. The FY 2008 budget bill mandated that DHS regulate the sale and transfer of AN and required the registration of both sellers and buyers. The regulation was supposed to be in place by the June 2008 and we have only seen an ANPRM to date. Now part of the problem is that the same people who are supposed to write this regulation are the same people who are developing all of the supporting stuff (CSAT Tools, CSAT Instruction, RBPS Guidance Document, etc) for CFATS so there is something of a time constraint. Another big part of the problem is the unexpected complexity of the issue. It sounds simple to say that you just have to require sellers and buyers of AN to register with DHS and sellers can’t sell to someone who isn’t registered. All of that is straightforward until you get to the user end of the supply chain. Most ammonium nitrate is sold at the retail level at distribution centers to farmers. Now the distribution center had to be registered to buy it from their supplier, so there is no problem there. The problem is with the end user. The big farmer in the mid-west buys multiple truck loads of AN at a time to prep his fields for planting. Registering the farmer is not a problem, he’s been there for ever, everyone knows him and he’s never been to jihadist training camp. The problem is that he is not the one driving the truck that is picking up the AN. That is a hired hand, maybe even a seasonal worker, maybe on an ag-visa. Registering that hand might be a tad bit harder, especially if he isn’t hired until the week before he’s needed. Another requirement of the legislation is that anyone with AN must report the lost/theft of any AN; makes sense, you want the FBI checking out the theft of nasty stuff like AN. Just one problem; AN is frequently handled in large bulk shipments and inventory ‘losses’ are common. Wind blows loose AN into the Mississippi River from barges every day. How much loss do you have to report? It was only a couple thousand pounds that crashed the Federal Building in OKC. That much is just inventory slippage. Just look at the problem that the RCMP is currently having in Vancouver (Winter Olympic site; maybe a terrorist target). A major AN supplier reported a 6,000 lb loss of AN in transit. Then they recanted, its not missing, some one miscounted. Maybe. The RCMP is still investigating; not to find out who stole it, just to see whether or not it is missing. If it is missing, then they start looking for the thief. Just hope it hasn’t been packed into a rail car heading for the chlorine plant just outside of Vancouver. I keep asking my contacts at DHS how the AN regulation is coming. The answer is always the same, just a couple of months away (this Spring, we’re sure). Of course, I’m not the only one bothering DHS about this issue, so is Chairman Thompson who pushed the AN requirement into the budget bill. So anyway, Red Team is right and wrong. DHS does consider ammonium nitrate in CFATS, but it probably isn’t as proactive in the area as is it probably should be. But then again, they have lots of stuff to do.