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DHS Mulls Updates to Chemical Site Risk Assessments: Auditors

The U.S. Homeland Security Department is starting to consider potential updates to its procedures for assessing risks posed by chemical facilities under a program for imposing greater security requirements on high-threat sites, the Government Accountability Office said in a report published on Thursday.

The department is collaborating with Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico to determine how the Chemical Facility Antiterrorism Standards initiative might assess the financial impact of a potential extremist strike involving various industrial substances, according to the report. In addition, the DHS Infrastructure Security Compliance Division "has commissioned a panel of experts to assess the current approach, identify strengths and weaknesses, and recommend improvements."

The auditors said CFATS assessments also do not examine shortcomings in defenses, a second area stressed in a National Infrastructure Protection Plan developed with input from the private sector and agencies at every level of government.

The DHS office plans going ahead to track how long site evaluations take to complete, auditors wrote, adding the department might need seven to nine years to eliminate its current backlog of 3,120 site security plans awaiting review. A lack of historical program details has prevented Homeland Security from evaluating the effectiveness of changes to its system for analyzing chemical plant protection procedures, GAO officials wrote, adding ISCD personnel deemed the earlier system to be marred by internal roadblocks as well as "bottlenecks in approving plans."

Homeland Security's "ISCD has also taken various actions to work with facility owners and operators, including increasing the number of visits to facilities to discuss enhancing security plans," but industry responses to the communications have been inconsistent, the report's authors wrote. The auditors advocated a more systematic method for the department to gather input from the chemical industry stakeholders.

Congressional investigators intend next month to issue a follow-up assessment of Homeland Security's steps to reform the program, the report indicates.

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