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Chemical Plant Attack Could Claim a Million Lives

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, March 13, 2002 (ENS) - A chemical release triggered by a terrorist attack at any one of 125 chemical facilities nationwide could put at least one million people at risk, warns a new report by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. The report, based on government documents, argues that the federal government has failed to take steps needed to protect the public from the possibility of chemical accidents or attacks on chemical plants.

While the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 have triggered a reexamination of security efforts at many potential targets, including nuclear power plants, airlines and drinking water supplies, critics say that policymakers and industry have largely overlooked storage site for highly hazardous chemicals.

dow

Dow Chemical plant in Ludington, Michigan (Photo courtesy Michigan Department of Natural Resources)
"We know that chemical plants can reduce hazards and it's time for them to do that," said Jeremiah Baumann, environmental health advocate for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) and author of the report, "Protecting Our Hometowns."

The PIRG report says that a release of hazardous substances such as ammonia and chlorine, used by a range of industries including chemical manufacturers, water treatment facilities and refineries, could threaten the health or even the lives of thousands of people living near chemical facilities.

Citing U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) documents, the PIRG report warns that some 3,000 chemical facilities each pose a risk to the safety of 10,000 people. About 700 facilities put at least 100,000 people at risk, and 125 facilities each put at least one million people at risk.

According to industry estimates, if the chlorine from even one tank car were released or blown up, the toxic gas could travel two miles in ten minutes and remain lethal as far away as 20 miles.

The release of the PIRG report was just one of several events this week that drew attention to the risks posed by chemical facilities.

On Tuesday, the "Washington Post" reported that an unreleased study by the U.S. Army surgeon general concludes that up to 2.4 million people could be killed or hurt if terrorists targeted a major chemical facility within a populated area. The Army's analysis was completed last October, but has yet to be acted upon, the "Post" reported.

peroxide plant

The FMC Corporation hydrogen peroxide purification plant in Pasadena, Texas (Photo courtesy National Renewable Energy Laboratory)
On Monday, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) filed suit against the U.S. Justice Department, charging that the agency has missed a deadline to submit a report to Congress on U.S. chemical plants' vulnerability to terrorist attacks. The Justice Department was required to issue this interim report under the Clean Air Act by August 2000.

"Attorney General Ashcroft says he's concerned about homeland security, but his department is a year and a half late on providing essential information to Congress about chemical plant vulnerability," said Rena Steinzor, an academic fellow and attorney at NRDC. "We need that information to protect citizens from releases of acutely toxic chemicals that could wreak havoc in the event of a terrorist attack."

The American Chemical Council, Steinzor added, has repeatedly cited the Justice Department's failure to issue the report as a key reason why Congress should not yet enact legislation requiring greater security at U.S. chemical plants.

Such legislation has been introduced before Congress, however.

"There is widespread agreement that chemical plants are potentially attractive to terrorists. So we need to take steps to reduce hazards and improve security at plants," said Senator Jon Corzine, a New Jersey Democrat, author of the Chemical Security Act. The Act is cosponsored by Senators Hillary Clinton, a New York Democrat, and James Jeffords, a Vermont Independent.

The Chemical Security Act would require companies that manufacture, use or store hazardous chemicals to make processes safer by reducing chemical quantities, switching to safer chemicals, or storing chemicals under safer conditions, starting with the facilities that pose the greatest risk.

The Safe Hometowns Initiative, a coalition of citizen groups, is calling for immediate community efforts and federal policy changes to reduce chemical hazards. This week, the coalition helped release the report by PIRG, "Protecting Our Hometowns," and the "Safe Hometowns Guide," a citizens' guide to reducing chemical hazards in communities.

"More guards and higher fences alone cannot protect our communities," said Sanford Lewis, consultant and author of the Safe Hometowns Guide. "These may be useless against terrorists known to use passenger planes and truck bombs. The good news is that we can reduce the chemicals at these sites and make it harder for terrorists to hurt people."

The Safe Hometowns Guide explains how citizens can make their communities less vulnerable to a chemical attack and safer in the event of a chemical release. Among other examples, the guide cites changes in hundreds of New Jersey drinking water and wastewater treatment facilities and a Washington, DC wastewater treatment plant that have recently switched from toxic chlorine gas to a less hazardous alternative, sodium hypochlorite.

Blue Plains

An aerial view of the Blue Plains Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant outside Washington DC (Photo courtesy District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority)
The Washington facility, the Blue Plains Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant, made the move within weeks of September 11th, eliminating the possibility of a toxic chlorine cloud spreading across the nation's capital.

"For years we've been focused on responding to chemical releases, rather than preventing them," said Dr. Tee Guidotti, Chair of the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at George Washington University Medical Center. "The events of September 11th gave us an imperative to change that. There may not be time to respond in a meaningful way to an armed attack. We have to make our communities less attractive to terrorists by eliminating vulnerability to chemical hazards."

The "Safe Hometowns Guide" is available at: http://www.environet.org/safetowns

The PIRG report, "Protecting Our Hometowns," is available at: http://www.pirg.org/reports

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