Attack on Chemical Plant Could Kill
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
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 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
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"
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
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
"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.
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