Monday, November 17, 2003

Weapons of Mass Destruction Found -- In Our Backyards

Click onto the American Chemistry Council's (ACC) chemical plant security website and you'll be asked the question:"Two years after the terrorist attacks on our country, Americans understandably are asking 'Are we safer?' "

Those of you who watched "60 Minutes" last night saw a frightening spectacle of reporters with cameras wandering casually through an unguarded chemical plant filled with hazardous substances that, with a bit of help from a home-made bomb, could have killed and injured thousands of nearby residents.

Reporters from the Pittsburgh Post Gazette and 60 Minutes inspected over 50 chemical plants over the past six months.

Are we safer now than two years ago? Judge for yourselves.
"60 Minutes" correspondent Steve Kroft and a CBS cameraman strolled to the tanks of lethal boron trifluoride at Neville Chemical Co. on Neville Island. Crossing through open or unlocked gates, they spent more than 30 minutes at the unguarded works during two undetected visits. Plant officials called the police only after the journalists confronted Neville's security chief with their findings. Neville Township police then cited the men for defiant trespass. According to Neville's filings with the Environmental Protection Agency, a catastrophic release of the corrosive vapors would threaten the lives of nearly 38,000 within three miles.
These weren't isolated problems. The reporters fround example after chilling example:
Federal officials were most concerned about the easy penetration of security at the nation's potentially deadliest plants. At the mammoth Sony Technology Center in Westmoreland County, an unsecured gate, distracted guards and unconcerned employees let a reporter reach 200,000 pounds of chlorine gas. No one stopped him as he touched train derailing levers, waved to security cameras, and photographed chlorine tankers and a nitric acid vat. If ruptured, one Sony railcar could spew gas 13 miles, endangering 190,000 people. Two other plants penetrated by the Trib and "60 Minutes" -- Univar and Millennium Chemical in Baltimore -- each put more than 1 million neighbors at risk of chlorine poisoning.

As faithful readers of Confined Space know, chemical plant security and competing formulas for addressing the problems have been frequent subjects of this Blog. To summarize, Senator Jon Corzine has been pushing legislation since 9/11 that would force the chemical industry to implement, where possible, inherently safer technologies (e.g. substituting safer chemicals, storing smaller amounts of hazardous chemicals, etc.), along with increased traditional security measures. The American Chemistry Council and their clients in Congress managed to kill Corzine's bill and instead are favoring an approach that focusses almost entirely on traditional security (guns and fences), and relies on compliance with voluntary guidelines developed by the American Chemical Council.

“My bill was crushed by the American Chemistry Council. It was crushed by those who were looking after their private interests and not the public interests,” says Corzine.

The ACC has an extensive chemical security program as part of its "Responsible Care® Security Code, which addresses site, transportation, and cyber security."

He contends that members are doing everything possible to ensure plant security.
“I think that one of the things that everybody has to understand about the business of chemistry is that we're in the risk management business,” says Greg Lebedev, the president of the American Chemistry Council, which represents 150 of the largest chemical companies in America.
Really? I thought they were in the chemical production business. So do their stockholders.

So what's the problem? Plant workers seem to have a pretty good handle on the root causes of chemical plants' failure to secure their facilities.
A reporter easily canvassed the sprawling Allegheny Ludlum mill in Brackenridge three days in a row, following a path down a bluff, across the railroad, behind a guard shack and up to 100,000 pounds of hydrogen fluoride, a lethal toxin used to "pickle" stainless steel.

Longtime Brackenridge employees blamed lax security on recent guard cutbacks and indifference. If released, the mill's acid could waft nearly a mile and threaten more than 16,000 residents with blindness, severe burns and death. A spill also would jeopardize water supplies drawn from the Allegheny and Ohio rivers.

Allegheny Ludlum officials declined to comment.

"I know they put in surveillance cameras, but we don't know if anyone is really watching," said Gerard Magoc, a Brackenridge steelworker for 31 years. "They put on a big show about searching cars, though. They're big on theft. ... They care more about protecting their toilet paper than they do about their hazardous materials."
I'm shocked.