Ex-official: Chemical plants security at risk

(CBS News) After 9/11, America realized that more than 4,000 chemical plants were sitting ducks for a terrorist attack -- tanks of lethal toxins were stored around many of our biggest cities. Five years ago, Homeland Security started a program to secure those plants. Half a billion dollars have been spent. But it turns out 90 percent of the most threatening plants have not even been inspected. Todd Keil was once in charge of this program and he told what he knows to CBS News.

"As the program stands today," Keil said, "it's not effectively protecting the American people from high-risk chemical facilities that may be vulnerable."

Keil was the assistant secretary at Homeland Security responsible for overseeing the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards program, known as CFATS, from late 2009 to February 2012. He said he was so concerned about problems with the program that he asked for an internal review.

The review found that after four-and-a-half years and $480 million:

  • There had not been a single inspection of a chemical plant.
  • No plant has a site security plan.
  • The review also found "...a catastrophic failure to ensure personal and professional accountability."

"There were administrative missteps," said Keil. "There were management missteps, and there were substantive missteps, that just led the program down a path of failure."

So in other words, broken? "Broken," Keil said. "I knew we had to put all of the dirty laundry on the table so we could make corrections, so we could make the program effective."

As for the response from Keil's bosses about the problem, the former assistant secretary said: "'Let's keep this internal. We'll see what we can do.' And my efforts at correcting the program were thwarted."

Last week, the Government Accountability Office reported that as of the end of June, not one of the 4,400 chemical plants in the program had been fully inspected.

"The CFTAS program has been, I think, a tremendous success to date," said Rand Beers in March 2010, the Homeland Security Undersecretary in charge of the program. He was Todd Keil's boss.

Beers told CBS News that 120 chemical plants pose a severe risk -- and of those 120, his program had done preliminary inspections on 11.

"What the American public has gotten for $480 million is a map of the vulnerabilities that this country has with respect to chemical facilities, and the process of developing the plans to make those sites safer for the American public," said Beers. "And we have made significant progress in that regard."

When told that four-and-a half-years into the program, there were no inspections, no approved site security plans -- as well as a large number of inspectors that were said to be unqualified for the jobs they were doing, and "an environment of fraud, waste and abuse" -- Beers responded:

"We certainly face some management challenges. And I think we have, as a result of the good hard work of the people who are associated with this program, we are moving forward properly according to the basic risk and management standards that are set by independent organizations."

Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, wants answers. "I think it's about time that the Department of Homeland Security comes clean," he said, "and admits that this program isn't running because the longer they try to mislead Congress, when the truth comes out, the more egg they're going to have on their face."

Todd Keil, who told CBS News about the problems, said he was forced to resign in February. The Department of Homeland Security wouldn't comment officially on his resignation.