published : 2023-09-05

Department of Homeland Security Seeks Renewal of Program to Safeguard Chemical Facilities

Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards Program Expires, Leaving Gaping Holes in National Security

An image of Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas delivering a speech at the Chemical Security Summit in northern Virginia. (Taken with a Canon EOS R6)

The government is deeply concerned about the safety of chemical facilities across the country after the expiration of a critical program that aimed to prevent dangerous substances from falling into the hands of extremists. The program, known as the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards, which allowed the Department of Homeland Security to inspect and ensure the security of these facilities, lapsed on July 28 due to Congress failing to renew it.

Homeland Security officials express their alarm over the resulting gaps in the country's national security and are urging Congress to take swift action upon its return this week. The repercussions of the program's expiration are significant, as it increases the risk of terrorists gaining access to and utilizing dangerous chemicals produced within these facilities.

Under the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards program, facilities handling a specific quantity of 'chemicals of interest' were required to report this information to the Department of Homeland Security. These facilities were then evaluated by the Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) to determine high-risk status and develop security plans. The agency assessed these plans, ensuring they addressed physical and cybersecurity measures, and conducted inspections to verify compliance.

The list of 'chemicals of interest' consists of over 300 substances, including chlorine and sodium nitrate. As per agency data, there are approximately 3,200 high-risk facilities across various industries, such as chemical manufacturing, agriculture, plastics, and pharmaceuticals.

A photo of a chemical facility employee conducting a security inspection. (Taken with a Nikon D850)

The program's scope encompassed more than just chemical companies involved in manufacturing or distribution. It extended to any facility utilizing these chemicals in significant quantities. Additionally, facility operators were required to submit the names of prospective employees to Homeland Security for screening against extremist groups. Prior to the program's expiration, approximately 300 names per day underwent database checks by CISA officials. Unfortunately, this crucial vetting process has ceased since the expiration.

Congress initially granted the Department of Homeland Security the authority to establish the chemical security program in 2006, and it went into effect the following year. However, the authority requires periodic renewal by Congress, and this summer the renewal process encountered an obstacle. Although the House of Representatives overwhelmingly voted for reauthorization, the Senate failed to do so due to objections raised by Senator Rand Paul.

Senator Paul argued that such regulations favored larger businesses and created barriers for new companies entering the market. He also asserted that existing security measures would still be upheld even without the program's existence, driven by companies' self-interest in safeguarding their investments. He proposed the implementation of a scoring system to assess the necessity of new government programs by evaluating duplication with existing ones. While no progress has been made yet, as the Senate is in recess until next week, the urgency to reauthorize the rule remains.

With the program now expired, the Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency has placed a notice on its website stating that facilities are no longer obligated to report chemicals of interest, and the agency cannot perform inspections or enforce the implementation of site security plans.

A close-up shot of a chemical storage area with tight security measures in place. (Taken with a Sony A7 III)

The lapse of the program has left Homeland Security officials without a crucial security tool. Jen Easterly, Director of the Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency, revealed that the agency conducts approximately 160 inspections per month at chemical facilities. As a temporary measure, the department has reallocated staff to the voluntary ChemLock program, aimed at assisting companies in securing potentially dangerous chemicals. However, compliance with this program is entirely optional, and the department has limited authority in case of non-compliance. The urgency to reinstate the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards program is further amplified by concerns about retaining staff in the absence of its renewal.

Industry stakeholders share these concerns, emphasizing the proven success of the program and its focus on identifying and rectifying security vulnerabilities rather than solely imposing fines. Matt Fridley, Senior Director for Security and Safety at Brenntag, a renowned international chemical distribution company, remarked on the effectiveness of the program in helping companies address security gaps. Nevertheless, the financial pressures faced by companies and the absence of mandatory security requirements introduce uncertainties about their continued dedication to rigorous security measures.

Furthermore, the loss of vetting prospective employees through DHS terrorist databases raises additional challenges for companies. Spokesperson for the American Chemistry Council, Scott Jensen, expressed these concerns, highlighting the importance of this vetting process.

In conclusion, the Department of Homeland Security is urgently seeking the renewal of the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards program to mitigate the potential risks associated with dangerous chemicals falling into the hands of extremists. The lapse of this critical program has created vulnerabilities in national security, necessitating swift action from Congress. Addressing the concerns voiced by Senator Rand Paul, while ensuring the efficacy of existing security measures and minimizing barriers for new companies, is crucial in reinstating the program. The urgency is further underscored by the inability to conduct inspections and the loss of mandatory security protocols at chemical facilities. As stakeholders anxiously await the reinstatement of the program, its proven success and focus on enhancing security remain at the forefront of industry discussions.