When chemical safety is a matter of security

Precautions: Steps are being taken to prevent accidents -- or attacks -- at Baltimore industrial plants, which could affect the area's residents.

October 17, 2001|By Heather Dewar | Heather Dewar,SUN STAFF

When a train loaded with dangerous chemicals derailed and caught fire in a downtown tunnel this summer, Baltimoreans were aghast at the hellish spectacle of black smoke pouring out of sewer grates and manhole covers. But chemical accident experts looked at the train's chemical manifest and breathed a sigh of relief.

Thank heaven, they agreed, the accident didn't involve something really dangerous - like a 90-ton tank car filled with potentially deadly chlorine gas.

Since Sept. 11, emergency planners here and across the country face a far more unsettling concern: that factories and municipal water and sewage plants could become targets for terrorists. Their chemical stockpiles can be turned into weapons - and are sometimes lightly guarded.

In Baltimore, as in practically every other American city, it's a real concern - one that counter-terrorism planners have been dealing with "every day since September 11," said Mayor Martin O'Malley.

Five Baltimore industrial and municipal plants have 90 tons or more of chlorine on their property at any time, according to reports the facilities provided to the Environmental Protection Agency that were made public last year.

Chlorine, widely used in water and wastewater treatment and in manufacturing, was the first modern chemical weapon, used by German and British forces to poison enemy troops en masse during World War I. It is also often released in industrial accidents, according to the National Response Center, which tracks oil and chemical spills.

Up to 1.7 million people - nearly two-thirds of those living in the Baltimore metropolitan area - are theoretically within range of the poisonous plume that could result if one of the 90-ton tanks failed, the Baltimore companies' reports to the EPA show.

The tanks are double-walled and equipped with safety valves; catastrophic failures are rare - but the consequences would be grave.

In the most-recent such accident, a 90-ton rail car carrying chlorine derailed and ruptured in the small town of Alberton, Mont., in 1996. One man was killed, 350 people were treated for chlorine inhalation and about 1,000 people were evacuated. Interstate 90 through the town was closed for 17 days.

Public records on file at EPA headquarters in Washington show that 31 Baltimore-area plants report keeping large amounts of dangerous chemicals. Almost half are city-owned water and wastewater treatment facilities, which, as in almost every other community in the country, rely on chlorine for disinfection.

Managers of 14 of the Baltimore-area facilities said a catastrophic leak at one of their sites has the potential to injure 100,000 or more people who live within the plants' danger zones. The Baltimore-area companies estimated that in smaller accidents, considered more likely, anywhere from two to 2,300 residents would be endangered.

An attack on a U.S. chemical plant probably would not cause enormous numbers of casualties, said Eric Croddy, a senior researcher at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. Nonetheless, he said, such an attack could accomplish a terrorist's goal.

"It would cause a lot of terror and consternation. It wouldn't necessarily cause a lot of deaths," said Croddy, who has written a book on chemical and biological warfare that is scheduled to be published next month.

"A terrorist could fail miserably to cause many deaths, but he still could succeed," Croddy said.

Responsible officials have known that chemicals stockpiled in American communities pose a threat to the public at least since 1984, when a leak at a Union Carbide Corp. insecticide plant in Bhopal, India, killed more than 2,000 people. In the wake of that accident, Congress passed laws requiring companies to tell the public about their chemical stockpiles and help communities reduce the risk from accidents.

But in most places, chemical accident prevention and preparedness was a low priority, and progress was slow.

"We haven't had our Bhopal yet in the United States," said Fred Millar, an independent chemical safety consultant.

But last month, the nation experienced something even more traumatic: Terrorists "turned our infrastructure against us as a weapon," in Millar's words. Suddenly, protecting the public from dangerous chemicals became an urgent matter.

In the weeks since the jetliner attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, government and industry have scrambled to improve security around hazardous chemical stockpiles. Uniformed police officers now help guard factory entrances, and gates that previously had been left open are padlocked.

O'Malley, who has vowed to make Baltimore a national model for counter-terrorism, said he believes the odds of an attack on a chemical plant are slim.

"More people are going to be killed by car accidents, cancer or heart disease than by a chemical plume," he said.

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