The Government Accountability Office says in a new report that while theft of explosives from state and local storage facilities may be infrequent, it is likely such burglaries are being “understated by an unknown amount.”

According to the GAO report, investigators who examined data available through the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives – the federal agency responsible for regulating explosives and licensing private-sector demolition storage facilities – found that ATF officials did not have information on all such incidents when they occurred on the local level.

“From January 2002 to February 2005, ATF received nine reports of thefts or missing explosives from state and local facilities, compared with a total of 205 explosives thefts reported from all sources nationwide during this same period,” said the GAO report.

“During the course of the audit, GAO found evidence of five thefts from state and local government facilities, one of which did not appear in ATF’s national database of thefts and missing explosives. Thus, the actual number of thefts occurring at state and local facilities could be higher than that identified by ATF data,” it said.

The report indicated government concerns about the vulnerability of explosives held around the country grew following the July 2004 theft of several hundred pounds of explosives from a local government storage facility in California.

In all, 5.5 billion pounds of explosives are used annually in the U.S. by private sector and government entities.

The ATF has private-sector oversight authority for explosives storage facilities, but that authority does not extend to state and local governments. “There is no ATF oversight mechanism in place to ensure that state and local government facilities comply with federal explosives regulations,” said the report.

Also, though state and local governments must comply with federal storage guidelines, they do not have to obtain an ATF license to store explosives.

GAO investigators visited 18 state and local explosives storage sites and found that “a variety of security measures were in place,” which included armed patrols, locked gates and in some cases surveillance technology. All reported conducting regular inventories.

“GAO identified several instances of possible noncompliance with federal regulations, but these were related primarily to storage safety issues rather than security,” said the report.

The watchdog agency recommended the attorney general direct the ATF to “clarify explosives incident reporting regulations to help ensure that all entities storing explosives, including state and local government agencies, understand their obligation to report all thefts or missing explosives,” said the report, adding that Justice Department officials agreed with GAO’s conclusion and suggestion.

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