United States Of Common Sense

Death in your backyard

DHS and the Failure to Safeguard Chemical Facilities

A number of years ago the Department of Homeland Security decided to come up with a list of what were regarded as the most likely scenarios for mass casualty attacks on the United States. The intent was for these scenarios to be used only for government training purposes. Within a short period of time, however, the scenarios leaked out, and they are now available on the Internet.

Scenario Number 8 in this series dealt with a chlorine tank explosion. It was based on the premise that an unnamed terrorist organization had succeeded in infiltrating an industrial facility and had ruptured a single 60-ton tank of chlorine. In case that may seem unusually large, it should be emphasized that the average railroad tank car carries 90 tons of whatever chemicals are inside it.

The scenario also assumed that the industrial facility in question was in proximity to a densely populated urban area and that there had been no prior warning of the attack and, therefore, no evacuation. Based on these assumptions the Department of Homeland Security concluded:

  • The resulting gas cloud might extend for as far as 25 miles downwind.
  • All of the chlorine in the tank would be released in less than an hour.
  • 17,500 people would die from exposure to chlorine gas.
  • 10,000 more would be severely injured.
  • As many as 100,000 people would be hospitalized.

In short, the Department of Homeland Security determined that a single, very average, tank of chlorine had the potential to effectively gut a large American city and inflict casualties that would make the horror of 9/11 look like a good day.

It gets worse.
There are chemical plants and facilities all over this country, which store and use not only large quantities of chlorine but also of a number of other highly dangerous chemicals. There are, in fact, a minimum of 101 such industrial sites at which there are on hand, on any given day, chemicals in sufficient quantity to threaten the lives of a million Americans. That is, for those of you keeping count, 101 million Americans who go to sleep every night within range of what amount to large, prepositioned weapons of mass destruction.

Faced with this threat, in 2007 Congress did two very predictable things. First, it passed a piece of sweeping legislation, the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards Act (CFATS) dealing with security at facilities where large quantities of dangerous chemicals were stored. Second, it so layered the bill with requirements for site surveys, lengthy paperwork submissions and review processes so as to virtually guarantee that it would have no impact.

And, then, it handed the entire mess of to the Department of Homeland Security, itself awash in bureaucracy, redundant layers of management and confusion.

Todd Keil
Todd Keil

Todd M. Keil was appointed in December 2009 by President Obama to serve as the Assistant Secretary for Infrastructure Protection at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. His office is responsible for protecting the assets of the United States essential to the nation's security, public health and safety, economic vitality, and way of life. | Photo: Department of Homeland Security |
Under CFATS, chemical facilities are required to work their way through a multi-stage process, which is supposed to culminate with the approval by Homeland Security of a site security plan and then, finally, with an actual inspection of the facility to see that the plan has been implemented. The program began five years ago. As of August 2012 over four hundred million dollars of the taxpayers' money had been spent. Not a single site security plan had been approved. Not one facility had been inspected.

Todd Keil was the assistant secretary at Homeland Security charged with overseeing the CFATS program from late 2009 until February 2012. Disgusted by the lack of progress in implementing the program, he actually took the extraordinary step of requesting an internal review of his own program. That review concluded, in addition to the facts set forth above, that there had been a "catastrophic failure to ensure personal and professional accountability" with Homeland Security.

Keil's bosses at Homeland Security responded to the results of the internal review by saying that they wanted to keep the results quiet and handle them internally. Keil himself was forced to resign. Rand Beers, Keil's boss within Homeland Security, stated that in his opinion the CFATS program had been "a tremendous success to date." When confronted with the fact that no inspections had yet been done at any chemical facilities, Beers responded, "We certainly face some management challenges."

Homeland Security now claims to be revamping the CFATS program and to be expediting inspections of chemical plants. It has acknowledged, however that it will likely not complete the first inspections until sometime in late 2013. As for a timeframe for actually inspecting all of the 4500 chemical facilities in the country, that is anybody's guess.

Over the years any number of individuals and organizations have pointed out that large chemical facilities in proximity to major American cities are a terrorist's dream. They are lightly guarded, easily accessible and have on hand sufficient quantities of dangerous compounds to pose a major threat to millions of Americans. An equal number of proposals have been made for common sense, practical solutions to the problem.

Greenpeace, for example, has been pointing out for years that in many cases the industrial facilities in question could simply convert from current processes to alternatives, which would remove the necessity to store mass quantities of things like chlorine on site:

  • Bleach plants, for instance, could move to generating chlorine on site instead of shipping it in, and that would removed the danger hanging over the heads of 50 million Americans immediately. Such a change at the Clorox plant in Los Angeles would, in and of itself, eliminate a threat to 5.5 million Americans.
  • Fifteen water utilities could change to water purification methods that do not rely on chlorine, already commonly used throughout the nation, and another 17 million people would be out of danger.
  • Eight petroleum refineries could make simple substitutions in the types of acid used in refining oil, and 11 million more Americans could sleep safely at night.

Other writers, myself included, have pointed out that a rational, pragmatic approach to addressing this danger would begin, not with the creation of a cumbersome, multi-stage bureaucratic process, but with an immediate, on site inspection of the top 101 most dangerous plants in the nation. Such inspections, coupled with the immediate implementation of some very straightforward, very concrete, and, in most cases, relatively cheap measures would not make an attack on these facilities impossible. It would, however, take it from being something that a handful of amateurs could easily pull off to something that would require significant effort and the assembly of considerable resources.

For years, conservatives in this country have bemoaned the waste, fraud and general inefficiency associated with federal social welfare programs. They have pointed out, correctly in my opinion, that we often get very little bang for our buck when it comes to large-scale federal initiatives. We build new agencies. We put legions of new bureaucrats to work behind desks. We generate forms, paperwork and process.

In the end, the impact on the street is often minimal.
Somehow, however, the same individuals who point out these problems in regard to federal social programs appear blind to their existence when it comes to matters of defense, counterterrorism and homeland security. In this realm, new rules apply. "Throwing money at a problem" becomes acceptable. The bigger the agency, the higher the budget, the better it is.

In the aftermath of 9/11 numerous authorities pointed out that we had a major communications problem. First responders utilized a wide range of communications equipment and transmitted on dozens of different frequencies. It was literally impossible for people working a disaster to talk to each other.

This issue also was handed to DHS. For nine years now the Department has struggled with the problem. $430 million has been spent, to create a system, which will allow the 123,000 employees of DHS to communicate.

Yet, the DHS inspector general recently found that only one of a total of 479 DHS employees surveyed actually knew how to use the new communications system. 72% of the individuals surveyed did not even know that such a system existed. Another 25% knew that there was a system but could not find it.

When confronted with the results of the survey Jim H. Crumpacker, the Department of Homeland Security's liaison between the Government Accountability Office and the inspector general, stated that DHS "has had some challenges in achieving Department-wide interoperable communications goals."

We have wasted a lot of money and time since 9/11 building vast new bureaucracies and generating rules, regulations and procedures. We never really could afford to do so, and particularly now, as we confront the federal fiscal realities, we must change. The time has come to stop confusing budgets and wiring diagrams with results. The time has come to demand real, concrete results.

In the meantime, though, those chemical plants are still out there, and the vast quantities of lethal substances on site remain unsecured. Until somebody in Washington opts for common sense over bureaucratic process, hundreds of millions of Americans are going to bed every night with death literally in their backyards.

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Updated Jan 2, 2019 12:29 PM EST | More details


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