Securing the Nation's Chemical Facilities from Terrorist Attack

January 2015
Topics: Critical Infrastructure Protection, Government Agency Operations, Government Acquisition, IT Investment Management, Prevent Terrorism
The Department of Homeland Security's National Protection and Programs Directorate works to protect chemical facilities from terrorist attacks and natural disasters. Since the NPPD’s founding, MITRE has helped design its systems, policies, and procedures.
Chemical facility

On the night of December 3, 1984, a series of mechanical breakdowns at the Union Carbide chemical plant in Bhopal, India, resulted in the leak of a poisonous cloud of methyl isocyanate gas. The cloud, hugging the ground, spread over the sleeping city. People awoke enveloped in fumes. Vomiting, eyes and throat burning, they ran out of their houses desperate to escape the vapors. But there was nowhere to escape to. By morning, over 2,000 people would be dead, with a half-million more suffering exposure and potential long-term health problems.

High safety standards in the United States make such a disastrous equipment failure less likely here. However, any American city situated near a chemical plant could be one well-planned terrorist strike away from being the next Bhopal. "Chemical plants are really pre-positioned weapons of mass destruction," former CIA officer Charles Sam Faddis said recently in an interview with NPR.

To address these types of threats, the federal government in 2007 established the National Protection and Programs Directorate (NPPD) within the Department of Homeland Security. Among its responsibilities, the NPPD helps owners and operators of chemical plants assess and mitigate their risks from such threats.

Ever since the NPPD's inception, MITRE has collaborated closely with the directorate to establish its policies and procedures and to design the necessary IT systems to translate those policies and procedures into action. Our efforts with two of the NPPD's divisions—the Infrastructure Security Compliance Division (ISCD) and the Infrastructure Information Collection Division (IICD)—are just two examples of how MITRE's systems engineering expertise helps sponsors develop and mature capabilities.

Protecting Chemical Facilities from Attack

The ISCD administers the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards and Ammonium Nitrate Security Standards programs. These programs shape security procedures at thousands of the nation's chemical facilities. "The standards aim to help our chemical facilities protect themselves against terrorism," says Kenneth Crowther, the leader of MITRE's ISCD and IICD projects.

MITRE was on hand at the ISCD's inception to assist in setting up the structure, requirements, and processes it needed to meet its mission. "We helped them to better understand how the possible threats against the chemical sector—and resulting vulnerabilities and consequences—might be mitigated through a regulatory-based data collection and analysis system," Crowther says. "This enabled them to build the initial set of rules for protecting against those threats. Afterwards, we helped them take those rules, think about what kind of IT system would best implement them, and then helped them to design the initial stages of that IT system."

MITRE—through the Homeland Security Systems Engineering and Development Institute FFRDC—has been steadily transitioning its functions and responsibilities to the directorate's staff. "For the last two or three years, our job has primarily focused on independent testing and evaluation of their IT system and on quality assurance of their systems engineering processes," he explains.

Additionally, because about a dozen agencies have some oversight of chemical regulations, MITRE has also supported NPPD with guidance on how to incorporate data from other agencies into their planning and communications strategies. By delivering a clear and consistent message to chemical facilities on how to best comply with regulations, NPPD prevents any confusion that might inadvertently threaten the public health.

Collecting Critical Data from Chemical Facilities

The law requires chemical facilities to adhere to the standards and submit to the inspections that the ISCD administers. However, the NPPD also conducts voluntary surveys of critical infrastructure facilities, such as chemical facilities, water purification plants, and major transportation and distribution hubs, to collect critical infrastructure information. The IICD maintains the IT systems that support those surveys.

Part of the IICD IT suite was a set of 21 tools that critical infrastructure facilities could use to submit their infrastructure data to the NPPD. To make the data submission process more efficient and cost-effective, the IICD decided to consolidate those tools into one Infrastructure Protection Gateway.

MITRE lent a hand in managing this process. "The IICD decided that one critical need was the ability to manage requirements as technology improves and stakeholder needs change," says Crowther. "So we helped them establish a requirements management team, as well as a set of competencies the team would need and the plans and procedures they would follow." MITRE helped the management team get up and running through dry runs of requirement processes and by organizing their initial meetings with stakeholders.

MITRE has also aided IICD with cost planning. "We helped them develop a new model for maintaining lifecycle cost estimates. When we presented the new cost model concept to NPPD, they were so enthusiastic that they asked IICD to present the approach to program offices across the directorate." Better cost planning means that chemical facilities can get more bang for their buck when they are developing their public safety plans.

Helping NPPD Build a Foundation for Success

MITRE proved an effective partner for the NPPD in part because of the wide range of expertise from across our different government-sponsored FFRDCs.

"From MITRE's previous research and support to other sponsors on countering weapons of mass destruction, our technical and intelligence experts understood the threats to chemical facilities,” says Crowther. "And our acquisition and development experts were able to share with NPPD their experiences in setting up large-scale IT systems."

Having built up their organizational capabilities with a helping hand from MITRE, NPPD can now dedicate its considerable expertise to protecting the American public from industrial accidents and attacks.

—by Christopher S. Lockheardt

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