Tuesday, August 26, 2008

DHS Chemical Facility Inspectors

I got an interesting series of emails from a reader, Brandon Williams, last week. He wanted to know what I had heard about what was happening with the expansion of the DHS personnel that would be doing the hands-on work of inspecting high-risk chemical facilities and helping them with the implementation of the Site Security Plans called for in the CFATS regulations.


Current Workforce


DHS has been using a limited number of personnel to ‘help’ Phase I facilities work their way through the CFATS implementation. This assistance has been more about helping DHS work the bugs out of the CFATS process than it has been about assisting presumably high-risk facilities work through Top-Screen and SVA submissions. The work of these personnel has not been enforcement, but about debugging the system before large numbers of facilities started work on these programs.


In a number of different forums it has been noted that there are about 100 personnel working on CFATS related issues. These personnel have been working for the Infrastructure Security Compliance Division (ISCD). What is not clear is how many of these people are actual inspectors and how many are working in various administrative and support roles.


Expanding Workforce


With over 7,000 high-risk facilities involved (some of them quite large and complex) DHS needs a large force of dedicated and well trained inspectors. To be ready to begin the first round of site visits the hiring should have already begun. This is what Brandon was asking about; why hasn’t this hiring begun?


Brandon has done quite a bit of research on this expanding workforce. He believes that DHS is planning on opening 10 field offices with five inspectors and an area commander at each office. He has seen position announcements for each of these positions, but no indications that hiring has actually started.


Budgetary Stepchild


CFATS was established as a congressional afterthought in the 2007 budget process. Actually it was more politically involved than that, but the effect was the same. DHS was given the responsibility to put together a program to regulate high-risk chemical facilities that congress did not have the stomach to battle through. Along with that minimal guidance, congress provided minimal funding.


The 2008 budget process wasn’t much better. Early in the process there was a big fight over propane and there was the threat by Senator Grassley to withhold enforcement funds from the DHS authorization. In the end there was no DHS Authorization Bill, it was rolled into what the press called the Omnibus Spending Bill.


Well, I am good at tracking down odd provisions in the requirements portions of legislation, but I have never learned how to follow the money. So, I checked with someone at DHS who should understand the money. He told me that there was some money in the 2008 budget for personnel, but no money for establishing the regional offices.


Regional Offices


It seems that DHS is not only capable of writing complex regulations with minimal congressional supervision, but they are also capable of squeezing money out of the budget for establishing at least a couple of regional offices. Three of the planned ten regional offices are being put together, only they are being called pilot offices for now.


What is interesting is the three cities where these ‘regional’ pilot offices are being established; Houston, Newark, and Philadelphia. Houston and Newark were selected for obvious reasons. Both have large number of chemical facilities, mainly based on petrochemicals. Philadelphia is harder to understand. It has a significant chemical base, but it is very close to Newark. I would have expected to see something in the Midwest or West Coast, to ease inspector travel times if nothing else.


The Way Forward


Where DHS is going from here is less clear. I have discussed the current budget impasse in a couple of blogs (see: “Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act, 2008”). The current administration lacks the political capital and will to force full implementation of CFATS. The House leadership seems to be indifferent, at best, to concerns about security at high-risk chemical facilities.


It seems likely that the three inspection teams currently being formed, augmented by the people already on hand, will be all that will be available for at least the first round of plant visits. We will have to wait to see what the next congress decides to do (or not do if Speaker Pelosi continues on her current course) about chemical facility security.

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