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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Security Risks Abound at U.S. Chemical Plants

Air Date: Week of March 26, 2004

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Forget biological stockpiles and nuclear arsenals. Take a look at the nation’s chemical industry, and you may find that the more than 2,000 manufacturing plants across the country could be the most vulnerable targets for terrorist attack. Reporter Carl Prine of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review investigated dozens of plants in four major cities, and found numerous security flaws and little government regulation for facilities housing potentially dangerous and toxic chemicals.


CURWOOD: Welcome back to Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood.

Making chemicals in the U.S. is big business. There are more than 2,000 manufacturing plants nation-wide, and the chemicals brewed in these factories are used in everything from plastics to pesticides. These facilities have been operating for years with little in the way of security regulations. And since September 11th, some people worry that stockpiles at these plants could be turned into weapons for terrorists.

Carl Prine is a reporter with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, who tested the security of these chemical plants first-hand. Along with a camera crew from 60 Minutes, Mr. Prine took stock of dozens of chemical plants in four major U.S. cities. He reported his findings in a multi-part series for his newspaper. Carl Prine, welcome to Living on Earth.

PRINE: Hello.

CURWOOD: Tell me, what kind of chemicals, what kind of industrial chemicals do we have here in America, just briefly?

PRINE: Well, there are hundreds of very toxic chemicals that EPA regulates. The ones that are particularly dangerous are chlorine gas, phosgene, methylisocyanide – chemicals that actually have been used in the past as weapons in warfare.

CURWOOD: Now, how could one weaponize chemicals out of America’s industrialized plants?

PRINE: Well, sometimes it’s as simple as blowing a hole in the containment vessel. If you do that you’ll release a weapon of mass destruction.

CURWOOD: And what else might someone do?

PRINE: Well, there are other ways you could do it. You could try different reactive chemicals to set up a reactive process that will blow a containment vessel. Or you can mix certain chemicals in such a way as to create a particularly lethal gas.

Of course, in the past, people worried about terrorists stealing chemicals and then turning them into a weapon -- kind of combining them into a gaseous form and then releasing them. We thought we saw that in Om Shinrikyo’s attacks in Tokyo. But more recently, people believe that Al Queda, particularly -- since it has an interest in sowing mass destruction in a very limited area -- that probably a chemical plant itself would do the trick.

CURWOOD: Now, as I understand it, given the devastating affect that chemicals could have in an area, you and some other investigators decided to see just how easy or hard it might be for somebody who had, say, ill intent to get into a chemical plant with dangerous chemicals. What were some of the plants that you investigated?

PRINE: It ran the gamut. I mean, there were very small manufacturers and storage facilities that nevertheless stored catastrophic amounts of chemicals. And there were also major manufacturers, members of the American Chemistry Council, who have always said that their plants were the safest and that their security was the tightest.

Some of them were large ones, like the Ashland plant here in Pittsburgh, Neville Chemical, which is the one we did with 60 Minutes. But also ones people have probably never heard, like the KIK plant in Houston, which is actually a very small facility but they have enough chlorine on site to affect three million people. And when I say affect, I mean kill, injure, or displace.

The Sony plant near Pittsburgh stores large amounts of chlorine gas, enough to kill, injure or displace more than 100,000 people in the suburban stretch of southern Pittsburgh. (Photo courtesy of Tribune-Review)

CURWOOD: Three million people?

PRINE: Yes, and those figures are actually created by the industry itself. The idea is that they report to the EPA numbers that they think are likely in a worst case scenario. The idea is to prevent accidents.

CURWOOD: What plan of action did you have in approaching each of these sites? I mean, did you sort of have a universal security test?

Open doors to warehouses allowed the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reporter access to dozens of containers storing large amounts of anhydrous ammonia, a dangerous substance that doubles as a coolant, fertilizer and explosive. (Photo courtesy of Tribune-Review)

PRINE: Well, actually [LAUGHS], at first I would case out the place. I would tell myself “think like a terrorist, what would a terrorist do,” and I’d try to find ways in. Toward the end of it, after we went to four cities -- that was Pittsburgh, Chicago, Houston, and Baltimore -- it got to the point where I was simply walking into plants, saying hello to workers on the way, even asking them, I mean, “where are your most dangerous chemicals?” And they would take me to them.

There was a Sysco plant in Chicago where one of the guards was asleep and I simply walked by. The Patapsco Wastewater Facility in Baltimore was the same way, where they actually had paid for a guard but the guard was sleeping. In fact, at the Chicago plant I actually woke the guard up on my way out and said “goodbye!” And he said “goodbye.’”

CURWOOD: Tell me what you saw when you investigated one of these plants. Walk us into, say, Neville Island -- that’s a facility right in your town there of Pittsburgh that you investigated.

PRINE: What we did is you simply walk along a rail line, it’s an unpoliced rail line. And you open a gate, or you walk through one of the many open gates, and you’re in. And it’s a very short walk from there to the boron trifluoride.

CURWOOD: To the boron trifluoride?

PRINE: Boron trifluoride – they use it in a reactive chemical process to make resins, plastic resins and things like that. It’s also been used in the past as an insecticide. So when it kills, it kills people much like it would an insect.

CURWOOD: And how toxic is it?

PRINE: It’s very toxic. That’s why it’s regulated by EPA. It would act like a gigantic roach motel if you were ever to get near it.

In the Chicago stockyards, dilapidated or broken fences allowed easy access to a number of major refrigeration complexes in the heart of the city. (Photo courtesy of Tribune-Review)

CURWOOD: So, what are the regulations that the chemical industry is obligated to follow here, in terms of tightening plant security?

PRINE: There are none. There’s absolutely none – which is the point of a great deal of federal legislation that is going forward from both the Republican and the Democratic sides, to try to shore up shoddy security, years of bad security at chemical plants.

CURWOOD: So, in other words, if I wanted to have a million gallons of highly poisonous chlorine gas compressed at my industrial plant, that’s just fine? I don’t have to worry about any regulations as long as it’s in an industrial zone someplace?

PRINE: Exactly. And some cities have no zoning. Go to Houston and you’ll find a major petrochemical plant sitting right next to a suburban housing unit. I mean, it’s just the way of life there. Houston was one of the ones we targeted, and that was very scary, where you could simply walk up to a plant and realize that the school next door would be in the pathway of the toxic chemicals if they were released.

CURWOOD: So Carl, somebody listening to this, and certainly me – I’m thinking, alright, these plants really sound vulnerable. What evidence has there been that chemical plants could, in fact, be likely terrorist targets?

PRINE: Well, first of all, they have been terrorist targets in the past. There were a couple of white supremacist groups in California and Texas that tried to unleash toxic chemicals. One was propane and the other one, I believe, was chlorine gas.

In the war in Croatia in the mid-90s, the Serbs actually targeted with their artillery Croatian chemical plants in an attempt to release it. Most recently in Israel, Israeli authorities are investigating an attack at a port facility there where they believe the suicide bombers were detonating so close to chemical tanks in an effort to release toxic chemicals.

And the crazy thing is, we also know that Al Qaeda was targeting chemical plants. We know that Mohammed Atta had looked at a plant in Tennessee. And in the bunkers in Tora Bora and some other parts of Afghanistan, when they were overrun by U.S. troops, they discovered chemical industry plans that the terrorists had been looking at.

Airgas Specialty Gases in Houston was one of ten plants penetrated by the Tribune in Houston. Airgas stores large amounts of methyl chloride, a highly flammable, explosive gas that, when kindled, produces highly toxic phosgene and hydrogen chloride fumes. (Photo courtesy of Tribune-Review)

CURWOOD: You’re really scaring me here, Carl. I mean, it sounds like these places are so easy to break into, that I’m just puzzled why we haven’t had more reports of terrorists trying to take advantage of this situation.

PRINE: Well, that’s something that’s interesting. There have been a couple of alerts that have been put out by Homeland Security about chemical plants being targeted, and also rail lines. Rail carries the bulk of America’s chemicals, and there have been a number of alerts about rail shipments of chemicals. In fact, when the war in Afghanistan began two years ago, there was actually a two-day moratorium on shipments of chlorine gas.

CURWOOD: So, what you’re saying is that terrorists could target a freight train loaded with chlorine gas that might pass right through some major urban area?

PRINE: Yeah, this is a big issue right now in Washington D.C. There’s an ordinance before the city council there where they’re debating whether they should move tankers of chlorine gas and other chemical around the city. They certainly do it whenever there’s a major sporting event, or the president is doing something that draws a great deal of people. This is something that the government doesn’t often tell the public.

CURWOOD: How much chlorine, let’s say, gas, might be on a freight train going through a city?

PRINE: It depends on what they’re carrying on their manifest. But a lot of times you’ll see – let’s say you go to a plant. We went to one plant in Houston, in Green Bayou which is right next to a major population center in Houston. And on paper, what they report to the EPA for their worst-case scenario, is just one tanker, which is all they’re required to report. And in their plant they might have three or four giant tankers – maybe 400,000 pounds. But they have a rail line with about 20 of these tankers waiting to go in to be used in the reactive process to make insecticide or a number of other chemical products that they make there.

So you have to ask yourself, why would a terrorist even bomb the chemical plant itself, when they can simply blow up the whole rail line with 20 tanker cars? I mean, we’re talking about millions of pounds of chlorine.

CURWOOD: And that would affect how many people?

PRINE: What they report is about a million people, but in reality it would probably be far, far worse because the sheer quantity of it. It’d be very hard to dissipate it. There was a chlorine tanker that ruptured in Ontario, Mississauga Ontario, in the 1980s, and it caused the evacuation of the city of a quarter of a million people – for over a week.

CURWOOD: What information is given to people who live near these plants?

PRINE: That was something very interesting that we found as we went from plant to plant, was the fact that most people had no idea what they were living next to. And that was the same in Houston or Pittsburgh. It was always that big plant next door that made stuff. They had no idea really what it was, or what they stored. There are no guidelines right now for telling people. They report to local emergency planning commissions, they report to the state, they report to EPA. But no one tells the people. And, in fact, government’s making it harder for the people to find out.

CURWOOD: What kind of information has been kept under wraps since 9-11 regarding chemical plants?

PRINE: Well, it’s a long list. First of all, there had been a movement under the Clinton administration to put a lot of these risk management plans from the EPA online so that people could see what are the vulnerabilities in their community. They could say, gosh, I lived next to this chemical plant, I had no idea that it had these chemicals in it. I had no idea that it could do this to me and my family. Those are all gone now. Those went immediately after 9-11. A great many county agencies which are supposed to disseminate information about chemical plants have simply shut down when it comes to giving the public any information at all about chemical plants in their area.

CURWOOD: Wait a second…

PRINE: Here in Pennsylvania, the state emergency command center in Harrisburg refuses to hand out any of this information, even though we haven’t seen any reason why they shouldn’t do it under our public records laws. So there has been a chilling effect from 9-11 when it comes to chemical safety issues.

CURWOOD: What action can residents take to find out what’s in their neighborhood?

PRINE: Industry, under the American Chemistry Council’s responsible care plan, does require companies have citizen action programs, where they actually will go out and meet with the communities and they’ll talk to people in the neighborhood. However, ACC manufacturers are only about seven percent of all the chemical plants across the United States.

So, probably, if someone really wanted to know, they should probably knock on the door and say, “hey, what’s going on here?” And see if they get a straight answer. If they don’t, then they should talk to their local emergency planning commissions -- that’s a quasi-governmental agency that’s supposed to alert the public and plan for disasters. And if they don’t get a response there then they should call EPA and set up an appointment to go to a reading room and find out the information for themselves.

Or, let’s hope that there are some intrepid reporters out there who go out and inform the public about this. Certainly there’s been great work done in Louisville, and Baltimore, and Portland, and other places where they said, you know what, we think the public has a right to know.

CURWOOD: Now, some would say that talking about this would give information to terrorists. Oh, here’s an opportunity to really make life absolutely miserable in the United States, and these journalists are giving us the blueprint for it.

PRINE: Unfortunately, the blueprint has been in Al Qaeda’s hands for a long time. We know that they’ve been targeting, or looking at, chemical plants. So the science has been out there for a long time, Al Qaeda’s targeting has been known for a long time. It seems the only people who don’t know this are the people who live next to these plants.

CURWOOD: Some place along the line, Carl, one of these companies, one of the federal officials you’ve dealt with, said, “Carl, I’m really glad you’re doing this. This stuff really scares the behiggies out of me and no one’s paying attention.” Have you had that conversation with anyone?

PRINE: Oh yeah, I have that conversation all the time, strangely enough coming mostly from chemical plant security managers who have been trying to get money for their programs for years. Often times, these guys are the former chiefs of police in their community or they’re former members of FBI or the selective service, and they’re used to a little bit better budget than they get when they go to work for the plant. They’re paid better but the number of guards they hire, the practices they want to employ to deter intruders, is simply not there.

CURWOOD: Without getting somebody fired, tell me the story of somebody who said that to you.

PRINE: Well, I’ll tell you, there’s a really good guy out there, his name’s Saul DePasquale. He used to work for Georgia Pacific. Georgia Pacific owns a great many chemical plants. Some of these file risk management plans. And he realized after 9-11 that the industry as a whole had done very little to protect itself, that they were terrorist targets, and that they could not rely on FBI or CIA to give them the information in advance. In a sense they would have to protect themselves, form their own little castles in case they were ever attacked. And he came away very disenchanted with what industry was doing.

It should be noted, however, that with a lack of federal and state benchmark standards for security, the only group that’s doing anything to secure chemistry facilities are members of the chemical industry themselves – the American Chemistry Council and SOCMA, the Synthetic Organic Chemical Manufacturing Association. These are the only two that really have binding rules on their members that say, listen, if you don’t improve security, you’re no longer a member.

CURWOOD: And how effective has that been, do you think?

PRINE: I hate to say it. In some of our tests – and our tests have not been scientific in any way, we simply walk in and walk out – we have found that the ACC and SOCMA members have been no different than the other companies. But at least they’re trying. And I will say that when you inform them about what you did, they are very quick to make changes. And we have worked with them to re-orient cameras or string up new barbed wire, or reposition guards, because certainly we do not want anybody to attack a plant that we’ve written about.

Now, of course, there are environmentalists out there who will say, listen, this is all a red herring. We shouldn’t be talking about adding barbed wire and posting more guards. What we really should be doing is getting these chemicals out of major metropolitan areas to begin with. Many of these technologies are outmoded. They could have gone to safer chemicals a long time ago, but it’s just cheaper to use the bulk dangerous stuff. I take no position on this whatsoever, but I think it’s an interesting policy debate that’s been forming in Washington, D.C. about how best to shore up security.

CURWOOD: Carl, before we go, tell me what kind of facilities are in your own neighborhood?

PRINE: Oh, there’s a great many. Pittsburgh is a major chemical manufacturing and distribution center. We have rail lines and waterways that connect us to the rest of the continental United States. So there are millions and millions and millions of pounds of chemicals stored in and around Pittsburgh. You can’t swing a dead cat around here and not hit a chemical plant. It’s not that unusual; it’s very similar to what you would see in Houston, or Louisiana or New Jersey.

CURWOOD: Carl Prine is a reporter with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Thanks for speaking with me today.

PRINE: Well, thank you.

[MUSIC: Massive Attack “Safe from Harm” BLUE LINES (Virgin Records – 1991)]



American Chemistry Council

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review: Chemical Sites Still Vulnerable


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