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Toxic Chemicals' Security Worries Officials

Widespread Use of Industrial Materials Makes Them Potential Target of Terrorists

By Eric Pianin Washington Post Staff Writer Monday, November 12, 2001; Page A14

Last February, environmentalists concerned about security problems in the chemical industry made their point by scaling the fence of a large Dow Chemical plant near Baton Rouge, La., and gaining access to the control panel that regulates potentially dangerous discharges into the Mississippi River.

The plant manufactures and stores large quantities of chlorine, a highly toxic chemical that could kill many if released as a gas through an explosion or fire. The Greenpeace activists who organized the foray said it was a snap because there were no guards or security cameras along the plant's lengthy perimeter and because the door to the wastewater discharge control room was unlocked. Though some industry officials played down the raid's significance, experts say it underscores another serious homeland security vulnerability after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Industry and government officials alike are looking for ways to make sure that, like commercial airliners, another component of U.S. technology isn't turned into a horrific weapon against Americans.

"No one needed to convince us that we could be -- and indeed would be -- a target at some future date," said Frederick L. Webber, president of the American Chemistry Council, an industry group representing 180 major companies including DuPont, Dow, and BP Chemical. "If they're looking for the big bang, obviously you don't have to go far in your imagination to think about what the possibilities are."

Industrial chemicals such as chlorine, sulfuric acid and hydrochloric acid potentially provide terrorists with "effective and readily accessible materials to develop improvised explosives, incendiaries and poisons," according to a 1999 study by the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Yet the report, which focused on West Virginia and Nevada as a way to sample the situation nationwide, found that security at chemical plants "ranged from fair to very poor."

"Most of the security gaps were the result of complacency and lack of awareness of the threat," the report stated. "Chemical plant security managers were very pessimistic about their ability to deter sabotage by employees."

Some of the chemicals used or produced in plants throughout the country -- and transported by rail through densely populated areas including Baltimore and Washington -- have the potential to match or exceed the 1984 disaster in Bhopal, India, in which a methyl isocyanate gas leak at a Union Carbide Corp. pesticide plant killed at least 2,000 people and injured tens of thousands.

"I think that if one had to think about what is the next level of potential targets, you would have to think about major chemical and oil facilities," said Fred Millar, a consultant on chemical accident prevention.

Immediately after the United States began bombing Afghanistan on Oct. 7, the railroad industry took the precaution of imposing a 72-hour moratorium on carrying toxic or dangerous chemicals. But the shipments were resumed after the chemical industry argued that chlorine was essential to the continued operations of sewage treatment plants and that there was no evidence the shipments were being targeted by terrorists.

Chemical industry officials say that, long before Sept. 11, plants had begun to tighten security and put in place safeguards including well trained and equipped hazardous materials response crews, vapor suppression equipment and barriers around chemical storage tanks. Since the attacks, the industry has issued tough new site security guidelines, and officials say they are in daily contact with the FBI and other federal authorities to prepare for a direct threat against a chemical plant. So far, there hasn't been one.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christine Todd Whitman, who has met several times with industry leaders, said Friday, "I don't know that you could get any higher awareness than we have today on the importance of directing resources to those efforts of securing chemicals on site."

"So they are doing as good a job as they can do right now, and they're very aware of where their vulnerabilities might be," she added.

But Paul Orum, director of the Working Group on Community Right-to-Know, a national clearinghouse on hazardous risk information, said the chemical industry "continues to maintain excessive volumes of extremely hazardous substances in heavily populated areas, materials that if they get loose can cover schools, hospitals and residential areas with toxic fumes at dangerous levels."

"The industry has been in denial about the need to reduce those hazards and set measurable goals and time lines," Orum added.

Chlorine is a telling example of the complexity of the problem. While potentially a lethal weapon, it is also a safeguard: Among other uses, it is a key ingredient in Cipro, an antibiotic used to treat anthrax exposure. "Chlorine is the first line of defense against bioterrorism," said C.T. "Kip" Howlett Jr. of the Chlorine Chemistry Council, as he strongly defended the widespread use and storage of the gas.

Last year, U.S. chemical companies and related industries reported 32,435 fires, spills or explosions involving hazardous chemicals to the National Response Center, an extensive but incomplete federal record of mishaps involving oil or chemicals. At least 1,000 of these events each year involve death, injury or evacuation. Combined data from additional federal sources suggest that in 1998 -- the last year for which full data were available -- there were more than 100 deaths and nearly 5,000 injuries, according to Orum's group.

A single accident at any of the nearly 50 chemical plants operating between Baton Rouge and New Orleans potentially could put at risk 10,000 to 1 million people, according to "worst-case" scenarios that companies are required by law to file with the EPA.

Those scenarios provide an estimate of the radius of a dangerous cloud of escaping gas and how many people it could affect. The Dow Chemical plant targeted by Greenpeace reported as its potential "worst case" the release of 800,000 pounds of hydrogen chloride, a suffocating gas that would threaten 370,000 people. Rick Hind, legislative director of the Greenpeace toxics campaign, said that the ease with which his group infiltrated that plant "shows the absolute porous nature of these facilities" and their vulnerability to terrorist attacks.

Environmental and hazardous chemical experts say that serious security problems also persist to varying degrees at chemical manufacturing centers in Texas, New Jersey, Delaware, Philadelphia and Baltimore.

Last July, a CSX train derailment and fire in a Baltimore tunnel paralyzed the city for five days while hydrochloric acid and other toxic chemicals contained in the tanker cars burned off or seeped into storm drains that flowed into the Inner Harbor.

Around Washington, the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority's Blue Plains Waste Water Treatment Plant houses one of the region's largest supplies of toxic chemicals, including liquid chlorine and sulfur dioxide. Since Sept. 11, Blue Plains plant operators have stepped up security and considered ways to disperse, shelter or eliminate the need to maintain a stockpile of chemicals.

Sen. Jon S. Corzine (D-N.J.) and Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman James M. Jeffords (I-Vt.) introduced a bill last week that would order the EPA and the Justice Department to impose tough new regulations to guard against the threat of a terrorist attack at high-risk chemical facilities.

-- Martin Thompson (, November 12, 2001


Toxic chemicals are a logical way for terrorists to go. These are an easy route to really spreding mayhem and horrors of all descriptions.

-- Big Cheese (, November 12, 2001.

All chemical plants are high risk. These are among the easiest to target, of all potential weapons of our own to use against us by terrorists.

-- Wellesley (, November 12, 2001.

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