The Homeland Security Department program charged with the security of chemical facilities like the former West Fertilizer Co. plant has been riddled with problems so severe since its creation five years ago that federal investigators recently wondered publicly “whether it can achieve its mission, given the challenges the program continues to face.”
A devastating Homeland Security inspector general report released in March lays bare an alarming pattern of poor planning and ineffective execution that beset nearly every aspect of the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards program, as well as the subsequent misleading of congressional overseers, who were told the program was making progress.
A patchwork of state and federal agencies regulated the West fertilizer plant, but nearly all focused not on plant safety, but on pollution concerns or securing the facility and its potentially dangerous fertilizers from criminal or terrorist threat.
The Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards program was sparked by the 9/11 attacks and began in 2007 to better protect the nation’s chemical facilities from terrorist theft or attack.
Like thousands of chemical facilities in the nation, the West Fertilizer Co. likely was required to fill out a survey with the Homeland Security Department so authorities could determine its terrorist threat risk. The plant hadn’t done so before it exploded April 18, killing 14 people, injuring 200 others and destroying 142 homes and apartments in West.
But Homeland Security’s regulation wouldn’t have had much to do with preventing an explosion. “Their mandate has nothing to do with safe storage,” wrote chemical expert Patrick Coyle on his Chemical Facility Security News blog recently. “They are responsible for overseeing the secure storage of the material.”
A close look at the Homeland Security program shows that had West Fertilizer Co. been regulated — and become one of the few facilities in the country to develop an approved site security plan — the program could have fostered additional collaboration between the plant and emergency responders.
Such a plan would require a closer look at “specific threats, vulnerabilities, or risks,” according to the Homeland Security Department.
It’s unclear if such a security-focused plan would have been more complete than a risk management plan the plant filed with the Environmental Protection Agency. The risk plan identified a worst-case scenario as a 10-minute gas leak of anhydrous ammonia. But the EPA risk plan wasn’t charged with regulating the tons of ammonium nitrate stored at the facility, which, pending the completion of a forensic investigation, experts have speculated was involved in the explosion.
Officials haven’t released the emergency response plan for the plant filed with local first responders.
But according to the inspector general’s report, for Homeland Security to get to the point of developing a site security plan would have been difficult. Frustrated investigators found problems with everything from the software used to determine a facility’s risk level, to a training academy for inspectors that was created before the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards program even began and later had to be shut down because it was so ineffective.
“A common explanation by program officials for the challenges is that CFATS is a new program,” federal investigators wrote. “However, it has been more than 5 years since the program was created, almost $443 million has been appropriated, and no facility has gone through the entire CFATS regulatory process.”
Problems plagued the program from the outset: The data collection tools used to determine a facility’s vulnerability and come up with a plan to prevent theft or attack were incomplete. A primary tool was a list of yes or no questions that industry officials said don’t allow facilities to account for “unique site characteristics, such as a natural security barrier.”
The incomplete information contributed to long delays in analyzing and approving responses from facilities. According to the inspector general’s office, despite thousands of security plans being submitted by facilities since 2009, the first one wasn’t approved until September 2012. So bad was the backlog that at one point a department working group estimated it would take 70 years to finish all the reviews.
Officials learned that, for many months, technicians incorrectly used proxy data in place of real data to determine a facility’s ranking that corresponds to its threat level. The error led to hundreds of later reclassifications.
Program officials say they have since revamped and streamlined their data collection and analysis tools and are now approving security plans at a much faster, more accurate pace, but investigators found the impulse to deny or downplay the shortcomings was strong. Program officials used confusing and ambiguous terms to describe progress during congressional briefings, investigators found.
Training was also a problem. Feeling the pressure to get the program started quickly, officials opened a training academy for chemical inspectors before the program’s scope was defined. The resulting training was considered ineffective and shut down in July 2011. A new training program started in June.
Industry officials interviewed by investigators said that Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards program inspectors often seemed to have just a rudimentary understanding of the chemical business.
“Industry officials said it seemed that people developing the CFATS Program thought chemical facilities were simple; as though each facility had one plant and required one fence,” the report said. “In reality, there are sites that encompass 10,000 acres, with multiple plants making a variety of products with multiple chemicals.”
This report is part of the American-Statesman’s extensive and continuing coverage of the tragedy in West.
Look for live coverage of Thursday’s West Memorial Service at Baylor University online at statesman.com.