Anti-terror push at chemical plants lagging

The Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs heard pledges Wednesday that the Obama administration’s push to protect the nation’s chemical plants from terror strikes is making progress, though it remains years away from completion.

More than seven years have passed since the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) enacted chemical facility anti-terrorism standards meant to stave off attacks at plants that house explosive and volatile substances. Yet the agency has approved only a fraction of the required security plans as it struggles to clear a backlog of thousands of site-specific proposals.

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The Security Committee's top Republican grilled officials on the backlog, noting that only around 750 plans have been approved and roughly 3,200 are still pending.

“We’re still three years from getting everyone inspected,” Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) said.

That timeframe has more than cut in half the expected duration of the approval process from a 2013 Government Accountability Office (GAO) estimate of seven to nine years.

DHS officials said the shorter estimates are the result of the agency’s resolve to prioritize the approvals with a focus on the facilities at the highest risk of attack and work though the approvals as quickly as possible.

“The improvements that have been made have accelerated the pace of approvals and we are continuing to identify and explore options to enhance the program,” Homeland Security Undersecretary Suzanne Spaulding said in prepared testimony.

“We recognize the projected timeframe for all approvals must be reduced,” she added.

However the initiative will not be complete until the Obama administration issues and implements additional regulations focused on plant workers, noted Stephen L. Caldwell, the GAO’s director of homeland security and justice issues.

The so-called “personnel surety” rule would require companies to perform background checks and ensure appropriate credentials for personnel and visitors.

DHS has submitted rule language to the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) for review, though it is unclear how soon it would be issued.

“I don’t know how to get that thing out of OMB,” Caldwell said.

But until the regulation is in place, the anti-terror standards will be incomplete regardless of any strides made at the agency.

“It is too soon to tell whether DHS’s actions will significantly reduce the amount of time needed to resolve the backlog of site security plans because these actions have not yet been fully implemented,” Caldwell said.