Tuesday, April 22, 2008

A Response to Complaints about CFATS

There was a prototypical anti-business article yesterday on the Rocky Mountain News web site. Heather Maurer from CoPIRG wrote a Speakout piece about chemical facility security. She started off with an apocalyptic list of chemical accidents from the last couple of years. She then trotted out the standard figures about the number of facilities that threaten more than a million or more than 100,000 people in the event of a catastrophic release. All familiar data to those of us in the chemical industry.

Chemical Industry Underestimated

Unfortunately, she then grossly under estimated the number of chemical facilities in the country. She cites a figure of 14,000, but DHS reported, in Congressional testimony on February 26th of this year, that 23,264 chemical facilities had completed a Top Screen submission. These were chemical facilities that had at least a screening threshold quantity (STQ) of one or more of 322 dangerous Chemicals of Interest.

A large number of additional facilities had requested a 60 day extension of the requirement to make that filing. An unknown number of other chemical facilities exist that do not have any (or did not have an STQ amount) of these particular hazardous chemicals, but still had dangerous chemicals on site. Finally, there are another unknown number of chemical facilities that only had relatively safe chemicals on site. The chemical industry is an integral part of the American economy and much larger than most people understand.

Every chemical facility manager I have met has had concerns about the security of their facility. Some are doing more about those concerns than others. In my opinion few are doing anywhere near enough; not out of a lack of concern, but out of lack of knowledge. Security is not something that has been taught as part of the chemical engineering curriculum. Government regulation is correcting that, it is providing on-the-job-training in facility security requirements.

Inherently Safer Technology Overestimated

The article then claims to have the answer to the danger from chemical facilities. Heather states that: "Any coherent solution must make use of American ingenuity and place these facilities on a path to replacing inherently dangerous chemical processes with safer and more secure technologies."

Anyone that has read this blog over the last year knows that I believe in Inherently Safer Technology (see: "More Reader Comments on IST"). But IST is not a panacea. There are only a relatively small number of hazardous chemicals, in a limited number of situations, which can be readily replaced by safer chemicals or technologies. As the cost of facility security increases (as the DHS regulations take effect), more and more of those situations will be converted without legislative fiat.

Ignoring "(t)raditional security measures, such as guards and fences" to demand mandatory IST short changes real security. A balanced approach is necessary to achieve true security while maintaining American jobs.

Employees Are Involved

The second portion of her "bold national policy" for chemical security is to allow employees "to participate in the development of safety and security measures". I don’t know who she thinks is doing safety reviews now (in depth security reviews are just now being formalized in most facilities), but it is certainly not upper management. Plant managers may participate in large project reviews, but most of the work is done by first line engineers and chemists; the people who understand the processes.

In my sixteen years working in a chemical plant, every safety review that I participated in included at least one hourly employee. They were always an excellent source of information on how employees reacted to various instructions or stimuli, but they knew no more, or less, about "how to make them (the plants) safer" than anyone else in the review.

All employees, from the facility manager on down, must be an integral part of the security plan for the facility. Everyone must understand the security rules and abide by them. Everyone must be an observer for the unusual, the indicators of a potential terrorist attack. A security plan that does not have the active, enthusiastic participation of every employee is a plan that can be exploited to allow for a successful terrorist attack.

H.R. 5577 - A Comprehensive Chemical Security Program

Ms. Maurer lauds the House Homeland Security Committee for the introduction of H.R. 5577, a bill that will "replace this limited temporary program with a comprehensive chemical security program." She is correct that this bill will replace the interim final rule that is known as CFATS. When congress passed the Section 550 authorization for DHS to implement this rule, it was with the understanding that the politicians would look at what the chemical security experts at DHS came up with and modify it as necessary.

According to Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, Chairwoman of the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Transportation Security and Infrastructure Protection, while H.R. 5577 "makes a stronger promotion of lowering off site consequences, requires employee training, protects against Whistleblowers and illegitimate use of background checks, it does not change the function of the CFATS regulation" In other words, the bulk of the current regulations remain in effect.

The two most significant changes to CFATS made by this proposed legislation are the inclusion of Whistleblower protections (see: "Whistleblower Provisions of HR 5577") and the specifications for the use of, and restrictions on, background checks for all employees (see: "Personnel Background Checks and HR 5577"). Unfortunately, it is still early in the legislative process for this legislation, so it is still too soon to see how the legislation will turn out or if it will even survive.

Security Is Moving Forward

Contrary to the opinion of Heather Maurer, the chemical industry is moving forward with a mandatory, comprehensive, government-supervised security program. Tens of thousands of facilities have provided data to the government about their inventory of dangerous chemicals. The facilities that pose the highest risk to potential terrorist attack have been identified by an objective set of rules.

Those high-risk facilities are beginning to complete a comprehensive security vulnerability analysis (SVA) that will be individually evaluated by the federal government against a peer-reviewed computer model to insure that all of the potential risks have been adequately identified and defined. DHS is providing guidance and assistance along the way, but it is also holding out the threat of fines and potential plant closures to enforce compliance.

Once those SVA’s have been completed then will come the harder task of developing and implementing effective site security plans. Again, those plans must be submitted to DHS for review and approval.

The process is not perfect and it can certainly stand revision and improvement. It was a procedure forged out of a political process of compromise and hard-headed realism. That is, after all, the American way of doing things. But, it is moving forward and every day we are becoming safer because of it.

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