What If Terrorists Target U.S. Chemical Plants?

Concern is mounting over the possibility of a catastrophe at U.S. chemical plants due to terrorist assault.

As the nation marked the six-month anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, there were signs of mounting concern over the possibility of another catastrophe because of the vulnerability of U.S. chemical plants to terrorist assault.

According to a preliminary analysis of chemical accident worse-case scenarios conducted by Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) staff, there are 125 facilities in the United States that put at least 1 million people each at risk in the event of a terrorist attack, while another 3,000 facilities endanger 10,000 people each.

There were news reports about a previously undisclosed study by the Army surgeon general which concluded that as many as 2.4 million people are at risk of being killed or injured in a terrorist attack against a toxic chemical plant, twice the number of previous government estimates.

The Natural Resources Defense Council filed a lawsuit in federal district court charging the Department of Justice (DOJ) violated the Clean Air Act by failing to deliver to Congress a report similar to the Army surgeon general''s. DOJ has already missed the original August 2000 deadline for the report, and there were unconfirmed reports the department would not meet the Aug. 5 , 2002, deadline for the final report either.

The American Chemistry Council (ACC), an industry group that says it represents 90 percent to 95 percent of the nation''s chemical manufacturing capacity, sought to undermine the credibility of the Army surgeon general study. ACC contended that the "study" was merely an "exercise" and was apparently not reviewed by the Army surgeon general.

ACC said it is making enhanced security mandatory for its members and will develop by June a new security code under its Responsible Care program. The new code will consist of management practices to safeguard sites further from potential terrorist attacks; it is also designed to build closer relationships with law enforcement agencies.

"We are looking very closely at how process changes can contribute to increased security," said Chris VandenHeuvel, ACC''s director of communications.

Environmental groups hope to build support for legislation ACC opposes: S.1602, a bill introduced by Sen. Jon Corzine, D-N.J., that would compel chemical plants to reduce chemical hazards.

"There is significant support for this legislation in the Senate," said Andy Igrejas, environmental health campaign director for the National Environmental Trust. "We expect it to move out of committee soon, and it has a good chance of passing in the Senate as well as the House."

ACC countered that the bill has little momentum.

Corporate and government efforts to improve chemical plant security have so far focused on the least effective methods, according to Sanford Lewis, a chemical safety consultant.

"Since 9/11, the emphasis has been on fences and security guards," Lewis said in a recent teleconference. "Those kinds of solutions are less effective than eliminating the vulnerabilities by reducing the volumes of toxic chemicals stored on site and/or replacing them with safer materials."

Lewis is also the author of the recently published "Safe Hometown Guide," a resource designed to help local officials, community groups, emergency responders and plant managers protect their communities from a terrorist attack on a chemical facility.

"The guide is a collection of best practices on how to reduce the risk of hazardous releases," Igrejas said, adding plant managers have already taken many measures to guard against accidental releases. "The need to do these things increases if you think about a criminal attack."

The guide is available at www.safehometowns.org.

by James Nash ([email protected])

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