Homeland Security could lose millions unless high-risk chemical tracking improves

From: Dallas Morning News


House budget-writers have proposed cutting nearly $9 million from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security because of problems and delays in tracking high-risk chemicals at plants like the West Fertilizer Co.

Also, a bill approved by the House Appropriations Committee would withhold $20 million until DHS submitted to Congress a detailed spending plan that included answers about chemical security inspections.

The proposals appear to be the first repercussions faced by any of the federal, state or local regulators since last month’s fire and explosions at West Fertilizer.

DHS declined to answer written questions about the bill and the committee’s requests for information. The U.S. Senate has yet to present its 2014 budget proposal.

The appropriations committee’s cuts come months after critical government reports on the chemical security programs and weeks after the chairman of the House’s Homeland Security Committee demanded answers from DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano.

DHS was assigned in 2007 to help protect and monitor chemical facilities that the government thought might be vulnerable to terrorist attack or theft. A year later, the department was charged with tracking the buying and selling of ammonium nitrate — the chemical that detonated April 17 in West, killing 15 and injuring 200.

Ammonium nitrate is known widely as a crop fertilizer but was used in combination with other materials in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and subsequent terrorist acts around the world. It can explode under extreme heat or shock.

The appropriations committee cited the West disaster and took aim at DHS in a legislative report accompanying the budget proposal, saying the department has made “only marginal progress in carrying out its regulatory responsibilities.”

The lawmakers wrote that DHS’ National Protection and Programs Directorate “has failed to fully implement” the ammonium nitrate tracking, which remains in the “rule-making” and public comment process.

They also noted department inspectors didn’t know West Fertilizer Co. had stores of ammonium nitrate well beyond the 400-pound amount requiring oversight. That, according to the legislative report, highlighted the “importance of a functional and efficient” Chemical Facilities Anti-Terrorism Standards program, or CFATS.

“Even more specifically, however, this event highlights the inability of NPPD to implement the Ammonium Nitrate Security Program,” the report stated, “and it raises serious concerns that the department’s Chemical Security Inspectors were unaware that West Fertilizer Co. was handling 2,400 tons of potentially explosive ammonium nitrate.”

That amount of ammonium nitrate was noted in a 2006 permit form that West Fertilizer Co. filed with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

Ammonium nitrate report

Plant operators reported having 270 tons of ammonium nitrate in 2012, according to an inventory report filed with the Texas Department of State Health Services. Fire investigators announced earlier this month that at least 28 tons of stored ammonium nitrate exploded more than 20 minutes after the fire began at the fertilizer plant.

Facilities with certain dangerous chemicals are responsible for notifying DHS when their inventories exceed minimum amounts. But the department is also supposed to make sure they know to do so.

The legislative report — submitted by U.S. Rep. John Carter, R-Round Rock, who leads the appropriations subcommittee on homeland security — also raised the prospect that other high-risk facilities may be going unmonitored.

Another branch of DHS, the Infrastructure Security Compliance Division, may “lack the ability to access risk or validation data” about the facilities because of the termination of a vendor’s contract, the report said. As a result, that makes “it increasingly difficult to monitor these facilities to assess risk and ensure the continued compliance of these facilities.”

The appropriations committee directed the NPPD undersecretary to provide Congress a “critical review” of its ammonium nitrate monitoring and answers about the chemical facilities program. Among the questions: What could be done to improve the identification of facilities needing security monitoring?

Aides for Carter and two other Texans on the homeland security subcommittee — Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, and Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston — did not respond to questions.

During the past year, the Government Accountability Office and DHS’ inspector general have faulted the effectiveness and risk assessments of the security programs, and have recommended improvements.

Oversight questioned

And just a few weeks ago, the chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, Rep. Michael McCaul, sent a scathing letter questioning the department’s chemical oversight. The Austin Republican gave Napolitano until Monday to respond.

In the letter McCaul asked, among other things, whether a more effective monitoring program could have “helped mitigate the disaster at West Fertilizer in any way.”

While McCaul acknowledged plants are supposed to alert DHS about inventories, he didn’t excuse the department for not knowing about West Fertilizer.

“The explosion of the West Fertilizer plant is a terrible tragedy, no matter what the cause,” he wrote. “But had the event been the result of terrorist infiltration, how could DHS possibly justify the investment of resources the department has made over the past five years to implement CFATS when it didn’t even know of this plant’s existence?”

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