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Chemical plants redouble their security efforts

Sunday October 21, 2001

By The Associated Press

Chemical plants lining the Kanawha and Ohio rivers are assumed to be tempting terrorist targets by many West Virginians who recall a Cold War warning that the region was high on Soviet target lists.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and Washington, leaders say the region's industry has redoubled security efforts, including at plant gates and along perimeters and transportation routes.

The attacks have also led to better communication among the plants and with government, one manager said.

"When this thing broke loose, there wasn't much [communication] at all,'' said Rick Hodge, manager of DuPont's plant in Belle. "Now it's probably 50 percent better. There's interest in doing more, but all the hoaxes and false alarms have taken up an enormous amount of [state employee] time.''

A harshly critical 1999 federal report said security was "fair to very poor'' at the plants, which make products like pesticides and swimming pool chemicals. The report by the Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry said security at transportation facilities was "poor to nonexistent.''

The report, which the agency recently removed from its Web site, identified several plant security weaknesses, including lack of background checks for employees and contractors; vulnerabilities at sites where barges, rail cars and trucks load chemicals; and lack of state government plans to address chemical terrorism.

The report said state and local governments also need to do more, including creating emergency plans specifically to address terrorist incidents. It also recommended stockpiling chemical antidotes and bolstering interagency communication.

Chemical industry officials say these weaknesses have been addressed, if not before Sept. 11, then soon after.

"Consciousness about this issue has been raised to a different level altogether,'' said Mike Agee, chairman of the West Virginia Manufacturers Association and business development leader for Dow Chemical, which has plants in Institute and South Charleston.

Coast Guard boats now patrol riverbanks and chemical barge terminals. Visitors face security checks and some combination of cameras, motion detectors, fences and guards have been added to perimeter security.

Security checks for those transporting chemicals have also been stepped up.

Brenda Nicholas Harper, director of the manufacturers association, said facilities no longer accept chemical shipments that have made overnight stops, which are more vulnerable to tampering.

Background checks are being done on all chemical plant employees and all contractors who enter plant property, she said.

However, Tim Fisher, a security official for Aventis CropScience, said the company, which makes methyl isocyanate at its Institute plant, does no background checks on its 900 employees, in part because it has its own security staff rather than a contracted firm.

A methyl isocyanate leak from a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, killed more than 2,000 people in 1984.

"Our in-house security knows everyone who works here and how the plant runs and where everything is,'' said Fisher, a 17-year plant employee. "You can't say I don't know the background on my people.''

The ATSDR report singled out the Institute plant as a likely target by foreign terrorist groups. Aventis, the latest in a series of owners since Carbide sold the Institute plant following Bhopal, has itself sold the plant to German chemical giant Bayer AG.

Fisher said Aventis has done background checks on some, not all, contracted workers and was considering asking contractors to begin background checks.

Coast Guard, National Guard and State Police officers have performed spot checks on local plants.

DuPont's Hodge said the Coast Guard has visited his plant seven times since Sept. 11, and the National Guard produced a six-page report with security suggestions.

Industry leaders acknowledged that the idea of terrorists crashing commercial airliners into chemical tanks was not imagined when their facilities were built. Even Union Carbide, which moved its methyl isocyanate tanks underground after Bhopal, did so to prevent accidental releases, not thwart terrorists.

"It's impossible to reduce the risk to zero,'' Dow's Agee said. "But we can get close to zero, and that's what we aim to do.''

Critics contend the federal government should take a broader role in securing chemical plants, or at least in assessing corporate responses to terrorist threats.

An interim U.S. Justice Department study of chemical plant vulnerability, mandated by Congress to be finished by August 2000, remains undone. Last month four U.S. representatives asked President Bush to release $7 million to speed completion of the interim report, as well as a final report due next August.

Mark Rigsby, a spokesman for the state Office of Emergency Services, said the agency has performed an overall risk assessment for the Kanawha River valley. But he said results were not appropriate to share with the public because of security concerns.

Gary Bass, executive director of OMB Watch, a nonprofit legislative watchdog group in Washington, D.C., said the federal government needs to assume a bigger role in securing chemical plants.

"The FBI, EPA and the Departments of Energy and Transportation should be working on a coordinated plan to boost site security, and Congress should provide the resources to help,'' he said.

-- Martin Thompson (, October 21, 2001


What badly bothers me, in addition to the possibility of terrorist attacks themselves, that is, is that all these precautionary slowdowns cannot help but stifle productivity in this country, and add to our economic woes on top.

-- Uncle Fred (, October 22, 2001.

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