WASHINGTON – The government is underestimating the threat of a chemical attack on America's densely populated cities and has failed to inspect virtually all of the chemical facilities that it considers particularly vulnerable to terrorists, congressional investigators say.
The yearlong investigation by Republican staff on the Senate Homeland Security Committee paints a portrait of inspection delays, government errors in risk assessment and industry loopholes in a $595 million terror prevention program passed by Congress in 2006.
Coming a year after a massive explosion at a West, Texas, fertilizer plant, the report points to threats from the release of toxic and flammable chemicals.
Roughly half of the 4,011 high-risk facilities on the Homeland Security Department watch list are in 10 states: California, Texas, Ohio, Illinois, Pennsylvania, New York, North Carolina, Florida, Michigan and New Jersey.
Committee investigators have indicated that larger metropolitan regions such as Los Angeles, Chicago, New York and Philadelphia might be more vulnerable to a chemical attack. The report notes that rural accidents like the West, Texas, plant explosion "pale in comparison with the consequences of releasing large quantities of toxic gas into a densely populated city."
The U.S. effort is "a broken program that is not making us measurably safer against the threat of a terrorist attack," states the report commissioned by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla.
It said widespread problems have left many of the nation's riskiest chemical facilities "effectively unregulated."
"Today - eight years later - there is little, if any, evidence to show that the more than half a billion dollars DHS has spent created an effective chemical security regulatory program," Coburn said.
The report relies in part on internal DHS documents, including a terror program assessment completed late last year that hasn't been released, and a federal database of higher-risk facilities restricted to the public.
The study was shared with the committee's Democratic chairman, Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware, who concurred with the main findings.
Acting swiftly to address problems in the program, the Senate committee on Wednesday approved legislation to give the Department of Homeland Security more funding stability to step up its monitoring and set guidelines for chemical facilities to undertake some security measures. Currently, funding for the program is authorized by Congress from year to year.
The legislation, which now goes to the full Senate, would authorize money for the program over a four-year period. It would also allow some of the lower-risk chemical facilities in the anti-terror program to self-certify that it had met DHS guidelines as the department worked to reduce inspection backlogs for those it considered to be at the highest risk of a chemical terrorist attack.
"These facilities, and the chemicals they hold, could pose significant risks to our communities if they were exploited by those who seek to do us harm," Carper said. He added that the legislation "should go a long way in making it better and more efficient."
DHS spokesman S.Y. Lee noted that the department has stepped up monitoring efforts, having approved security plans for 750 facilities in the last two years. DHS officials have called on Congress to authorize the program over multiple years so the government and chemical companies can better plan for longer-range security.
"The Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards program is an important part of our nation's counterterrorism efforts," Lee said, adding that DHS is committed "to build on the progress it has made."
The report said that as of June 30, DHS had failed to conduct security compliance inspections on 3,972 chemical facilities, or 99 percent of the 4,011 facilities initially considered at a higher risk for terrorism. Many of these facilities are chemical manufacturers; they also include farm supply retailers or fertilizer distribution warehouses.
DHS considers a chemical facility "higher risk" based on the amount of toxic or flammable chemicals on site, such as chlorine, a corrosive, or ammonium nitrate, which can be used to make explosives.
Final rankings, on a tier of one to four, are determined based on additional information provided to the government.
The committee found that roughly 3,111 of the facilities had yet to have security plans approved despite statements to DHS officials that they would be done. Investigators said it could take years for DHS to reduce the backlog.
The report also cites a DHS-commissioned study completed late last year that raised concerns the list of 4,011 higher-risk facilities was not accurate, in some cases relying on outdated data or treating densely populated areas as lower threats due to coding errors.
Among other findings, the report points to industry loopholes. DHS grants exemptions to a number of industries, including water and wastewater treatment, which use high amounts of chlorine, a toxic chemical. While the program regulates ammonium nitrate, it does not regulate 12 other chemicals that can also be used to make explosives.