Chemical plants: everyday threat

November 27, 2001|By Rick Hind

WASHINGTON -- The magnitude of a terrorist attack on U.S. chemical facilities could easily exceed the loss of life suffered on Sept. 11 in New York. So it is time to address the vulnerability of this industry.

Recent events underscore the immediacy of this threat, including the two nationwide security alerts by the FBI and a 72-hour moratorium by the railroad industry on carrying chemicals such as chlorine.

Even President Bush was at risk. On Sept. 11, when Air Force One landed in Louisiana, the president joined more than a million Louisiana residents who live every day in a region that is blanketed by chemical "kill zones." They surround more than 100 petrochemical facilities situated along the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. A new federal study of the U.S. chemical industry found security against terrorists to be "fair to poor."

Thankfully, there has never been a terrorist attack on a U.S. chemical facility. But there have been more than 3,000 accidents involving more than 10,000 pounds of hazardous materials since 1987, with smaller incidents occurring daily.

About 15,000 facilities across the United States are required to report their worst case accident scenarios to the Environmental Protection Agency. These reports contain estimates on the distance that a super toxic chemical cloud could extend over neighboring populations. Pressure has recently been put on the EPA to deny public access to this basic information.

Denying access to these reports will only accomplish one thing: It will leave the members of the public without vital information needed to protect themselves in the event of an attack or an accident. Hiding basic hazards information from the public undermines the credibility of government and industry and will lead to dedicated terrorists being the only non-governmental people outside industry to have this information.

Unfortunately, after using terrorism as an argument to hide potential chemical disasters, the U.S. chemical industry has done little to eliminate the threats posed by chemical facilities.

Earlier this year, Greenpeace exposed a significant example of this failure by publishing photographic evidence from inside a Dow Chemical plant in Plaquemine, La. The photos show the internal control panels and operating instructions of an unguarded pump house that releases 550 million gallons of wastewater into the Mississippi River every day.

While investigating Dow's Clean Water Act violations, Greenpeace activists entered this facility undetected. There were no guards at the perimeter, no security cameras and no burglar alarms. In fact, the door to the building was unlocked. All of these are rudimentary security measures that the EPA recommended in a February 2000 security alert. The EPA also recommended "design" changes in plants that fewer facilities have implemented.

Greenpeace recommends a set of short- and long-term steps to eliminate these unnecessary and preventable disasters.

In the short-term, these include the immediate implementation of a program to end the transport of large quantities of poisonous chemicals, reduced storage of similar substances to quantities that cannot threaten area populations and decentralized production of these substances to eliminate the need for large container transport and storage.

In Washington this month, the local sewage treatment plant announced that it has accelerated by one year an end to its use of highly toxic chlorine gas because of its potential use by terrorists. The plant is only four miles from the U.S. Capitol. According to the National Transportation Safety Board and the Coast Guard, a large leak of chlorine gas can travel two miles in only 10 minutes and remain acutely toxic to a distance of about 20 miles.

In the long-term, virtually all of the ultra-hazardous chemicals used in the United States have safer substitutes, and conversion to them should begin today.

The United States needs many things to function. What it does not need is to continue producing obsolete and ultra-hazardous chemicals that pose enormous risks to the public -- with or without the threat of terrorist attack.

Rick Hind is the legislative director of the Greenpeace Toxics Campaign.

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