Sunday, February 06, 2005

NY Chem Company Decides Terrorism Threat Is Over

In August of 2003, the Times Herald Record in New York's Hudson Valley published the following article as part of a series on "Time Bombs, Dangerous Chemicals"
Warwick – It's a quiet August night in downtown Warwick. The sleeping village lies under a dome of hot air, stirred only by a light breeze.

At 3 a.m., a man walks casually along the railroad tracks behind the Jones Chemical plant. The plant is tucked into a quiet residential neighborhood along the banks of Wawayanda Creek, about a half-mile from the center of this village of 6,400 souls.

He approaches the plant, which is home to as much as 1.3 million pounds of potentially deadly chlorine and other toxic chemicals. No barrier – not even a simple fence – stands between the man and a dozen or more rail cars in back of the plant, or between him and the back doors of the plant's warehouse. No one challenges him.

The man is carrying a backpack, which he slips off and places carefully on the side of a railroad car loaded with 180,000 pounds of chlorine.

He pulls a string.

The explosion blows a hole through the car's multiple skins. Chlorine pours out at 18,000 pounds per minute, creating a rapidly-expanding cloud of deadly gas. The cloud spreads, quickly drifting to nearby neighborhoods. There's little time to warn residents and even less time to evacuate them.

In 10 minutes, the heart of Warwick is covered under a cloud of poison. And the cloud continues to grow. Ultimately, the breeze-borne gas spreads up to 25 miles from the plant, putting more than one million people at risk of death or serious injury.
The scenario is imaginary, but Jones Chemical, the chlorine and the potential hazard are real. So was the vulnerability of the plant:
In response to questions raised by a May 2 [2003] fire at Warwick's Jones Chemical plant – a fire that didn't involve any chemicals – company officials insisted the plant was safe and secure.

But on July 8, a Times Herald-Record reporter and photographer were able to walk within a stone's throw of several railroad cars used to store chemicals clearly marked as containing chlorine and sodium hydroxide.

The pair took notes and photographs in plain sight for more than 15 minutes – noting the lack of a perimeter fence and several wide-open warehouse doors – before being challenged by two workers who happened to spot the duo by sheer luck.
In response to the article, Jones Chemical hired outside security guards to patrol the gate 24 hours a day.

But last week, the Warwick police noticed that there was no longer a security officer manning the gate. After asking Jones what was going on, the company briefed the city.

There are no longer security guards posted at the entrance gate of the Jones Chemical plant, considered a potential terrorist target because it manufactures and packages chlorine and sulfur dioxide.

Citing financial constraints, company officials said they were slashing security patrols at the main gate. Instead, the company will have a Jones Chemical employee monitoring the plant and its grounds from within the compound, according to Mike Sweeton, Warwick town supervisor, who said company officials briefed him last week.

Company officials told Sweeton they would be locking the gate as an added precaution. The company also has several security cameras and fencing throughout the plant and its yard.

Dan L. Casney, vice president of security for Jones, said it would be irresponsible and a violation of company guidelines to disclose security details. However, Casney said in an e-mail, "I can assure you that security of the facility is a priority."

Whether removing guards at the gate weakens security at the plant is open to debate, Sweeton said. Company officials told the town it doesn't.

Still, Sweeton said yesterday, "I informed Jones that I thought this measure was a little short-sighted."

Perhaps just a little. Of course, one might also wonder whether it might be a good idea to figure out an alternative to storing 180,000 pounds of chlorine on the site.

Luckily, the town has just been awarded a $50,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security which will be used to purchase
cameras showing the plant's perimeter, which can be monitored 24 hours a day from the Warwick police station, adding lights to illuminate the perimeter, and buying all-terrain vehicles that would allow town emergency officials to get through the plant's grounds quickly.
As we have reported previously, (here, here and here) there are no federal regulations requiring chemical plants to provide security against terrorist attacks.

Senator Jon Corzine (D-NJ) introduced legislation (S. 157) shortly after 9/11, which was passed unanimously by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee committee. Corzine's bill would have required chemical plants to do a hazard assessment and consider the introduction of inherently safer technologies. The bill was later killed by Senate Republicans at the urging (and $4.3 million of lobbying) of the American Chemistry Council (ACC), in addition to $4.3 million spent on lobbying. The Administration prefers chemical companies to comply with the voluntary guidelines issued by the ACC. Of course, Jones Chemical isn't a member of ACC.