THREAT POTENTIAL Power blackouts are disruptive, but by comparison, an attack on a chemical site could be far more deadly.

An investigative reporter and cameraman walk unimpeded into dozens of chemical sites, easily reaching storage tanks brimming with toxic chemicals.

An environmental activist takes photographs after slipping inside a chemical facility through an unlocked door, proving his presence.

Copies of U.S. chemical trade publications are found in al Qaeda caves.

Mohammad Atta, reputed leader of the 9/11 attacks, reportedly visits an airfield in Florida to evaluate the potential of crop-duster planes to disperse deadly chemicals from the air.

Industry representatives angrily charge that these and similar true stories are examples of media sensationalism. The unfortunate reality is that a malicious attack on unprotected chemical plants or storage sites could release a toxic cloud, quickly killing or sickening thousands, even millions, of people. "If you attack a power line, the lights go out. If you attack a facility with toxic chemicals, it puts U.S. citizens in jeopardy," says Edward Badolato, executive vice-president for the homeland security division of The Shaw Group, Baton Rouge Click here to view maps

A criminal assault on a vulnerable facility could also have grave economic and national security consequences. "We have one member–a petrochemical plant–that manufactures jet fuel and is the sole supplier for four Air Force bases," says Dorothy Kellogg, security specialist with the American Chemistry Council, an industry trade group in Washington, D.C. "It can be replaced, [but] this would take time and the planes would be grounded for that period."

There are about 120 individual sites around the country that use or store hazardous materials in quantities large enough to endanger a million or more people, based on data compiled by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Yet, despite a consensus about the potential danger to public health, "no federal laws explicitly require that chemical facilities assess vulnerabilities or take security actions to safeguard their facilities from attack," says a report by the U.S. General Accounting Office.

After 9/11, chemical industry trade groups moved quickly to shore up security. The message was clear: Put your security house in order or the government will do it for you. Trade groups developed guidelines and evaluation tools that are especially useful for smaller chemical companies without the budgets for security enhancements.

"Companies are now looking at their plants through the eyes of a terrorist, asking themselves, ‘where am I vulnerable?’" says Scott Berger, chemical engineer and director of the Center for Chemical Safety, New York City.

So far, many companies have conducted assessments to identify security vulnerabilities. "The industry is right in the midst of putting countermeasures into place," says Badolato.

Most fall under the G3 category: guns, gates and guards. Fencing has been beefed up. New and better-trained guards are on the job. Plants are fitted with remote new video cameras and motion detectors. Background checks on employees are now common. However, security-related facility design changes are generally on hold until the industry’s economic outlook improves.

"Retrofits will only be implemented during new construction or rebuilds," says Berger. In other words, making the industry invulnerable to attack is just too expensive right now.

Industry critics are troubled that security enhancement is a choice, not an obligation. Even if larger manufacturers and facilities willingly beef up security to acceptable levels–as many have–there is no way to force the inevitable laggards to safeguard their chemicals. GAO even claims it cannot assess the industry as a whole. "Despite the industry’s voluntary efforts, the extent of security preparedness at U.S. chemical facilities is unknown," says the GAO report.

Still, a few things have changed, thanks to new legislation. Chemical sites on navigable waters now fall under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Coast Guard and are subject to new maritime security regulations. But even industry representatives acknowledge that some type of broader legislation is inevitable. "People think that the chemical industry is opposed to legislation. That is not so. We understand there is a need for legislative action," says Joseph G. Acker, a chemical engineer and current president of the Synthetic Organic Chemical Manufacturing Association, Washington, D.C.

But the legislative debate since 9/11 has been contentious and partisan. There is major disagreement over inherently safer technology, commonly referred to as IST, in chemical security legislation.

"Physical security enhancements are good but we don’t think that this should be the entirety of the program," says Jon Devine, a Natural Resources Defense Council attorney in Washington, D.C.

IST is a conceptual framework that encourages manufacturers to replace toxic chemicals with less-hazardous materials, reduce the volatility of processes by lowering temperatures and pressures and adopt small batch "just-in-time" manufacturing techniques to avoid storage of large quantities of toxic chemicals.

"No security scheme is foolproof, and the best way to save lives is to use safer technologies, where possible," says Senator Jon S. Corzine (D-N.J.). "The consequences of an attack on a chemical plant are potentially so horrific that it’s hard for many of us to even imagine…. Our nation has been in denial about this problem."

Shortly after 9/11, Corzine introduced the Chemical Security Act, a bill he says was inspired during his frequent flights from Washington, D.C., to Newark. Looking down at the landscape, he saw unguarded storage tanks, refineries and chemical plants, all open and starkly vulnerable to attack.

In addition to the expected provisions of any security bill, the Corzine bill requires manufacturers to adopt IST as a guiding principle and would give oversight to EPA. Advocates say IST provides a permanent solution to a terrorist threat while physical security enhancements are temporary. The District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority’s Blue Plains wastewater treatment plant, just four miles from the U.S. Capitol, exemplifies IST’s benefits.

In response to 9/11, district officials decided that the storage and use of chlorine at the 370-million-gallon-per-day plant was an unacceptable threat to Washington, D.C. Chlorine is commonly used for disinfecting wastewater even though the gas is deadly if airborne; it was used as a chemical weapon during World War I. Engineers at the plant accelerated a pilot plan to convert to a safer sodium hypochlorite bleach purification process. The conversion process cost "20� to 25� per year per customer," Devine says.

Initial support for the Corzine bill was strong. It was introduced during the short window of nonpartisan behavior inspired by and following the 9/11 tragedy. But the measure faltered after a strong industry lobbying blitz that linked it to the agenda of environmental groups, especially Greenpeace.

"There are certain parties who have tried to ban the use of some chemicals for years. This is the latest attempt," Kellogg says. "This is old legislation dressed up in the guise of security. This has nothing to do with security."

Long before 9/11, some environmental groups were pushing to reduce the nation’s use on toxic chemicals. Large manufacturers, such as Dow Chemical, are a frequent target of Greenpeace and other activists. The actions have historically been motivated by worries about ecosystem damage, but the unknown effect of toxic chemicals on human health also plays a role. It was keyed by the 1984 incident in Bhopal, India, where nearly 4,000 persons died from toxic fumes leaking from a storage tank at a Union Carbide plant.

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) introduced legislation to counter the Corzine bill. The proposal is supported by President Bush, gives oversight authority to the Dept. of Homeland Security and drops the requirement for IST, although companies are asked to consider it. However, it includes a nudge toward IST by exempting firms from the regulatory burden if they don’t use certain chemicals.

CONTROL Congress debates whether EPA or Homeland Security monitors safety.

Industry perceives the Inhofe bill to be light-years better than the more restrictive Corzine proposal and cautiously supports it, particularly since it removes EPA oversight. "We see this as a security issue, not an environmental issue…it should be at the Dept. of Homeland Security," says Acker.

"Inherently safer technology is a good idea but it cannot be mandated because it is not a single technique, it is a philosophy," Kellogg says. "How do you legislate a philosophy?"

Industry critics say the latest legislation is simply not good enough. They maintain that the intersection of homeland security and environmental agendas is a net positive for society. They also charge that the bill has no real teeth since there is no provision for criminal prosecution.

Congressional action on chemical security this year is unlikely, although the Inhofe bill recently made it out of committee. Activists intend to continue pushing for IST. "Inherent safety is something the companies should be required to consider, it should not be voluntary. We will fight to make sure that security legislation includes hazard reduction at facilities," Devine says.

(Photos courtesy of Shell Chemicals)

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