Sunday, May 22, 2005

NY Times Says It's Time To Take Chem Plant Security Seriously

All those chemical plants looming just across the Hudson River and New York Bay are clearly making the editors at the NY Times mighty nervous, if today's lead editorial is any indication. The editorial, titled "Inside the Kill Zone" re-tells that oh-so-familiar story, this time highlighting a chemical plant near New Orleans:
There is a park outside New Orleans with rows of old oak trees and the ruins of a colonial plantation. It is a pleasant place to take a stroll - and it would be an ideal staging ground for a terrorist attack on Chalmette Refining. An attack on the refinery, which has 600,000 pounds of hydrofluoric acid on hand, could put the entire population of New Orleans at risk of death or serious injury.

Chalmette Refining, a joint venture of Exxon Mobil, is one of more than 15,000 potentially deadly chemical plants and refineries nationwide. More than 100 of them put a million or more people at risk. These time bombs are everywhere, from big cities like Los Angeles to small towns like Barberton, Ohio. Many are so inconspicuous - a chlorine plant may be a couple of tanks and access to a railroad line - that the people in the kill zone do not even know to be worried.

The worst possible outcomes are chilling. A successful terrorist attack on a chlorine tank could produce, according to a Department of Homeland Security report, 17,500 deaths, 10,000 severe injuries and 100,000 hospitalizations. In Bhopal, India, in 1984, when methyl isocyanate escaped accidentally from a chemical plant, at least 3,800 people were killed and as many as 600,000 injured.
And then there's the obligatory story that we've heard over and over again about how, three and a half years after 9/11, reporters are still able to enter chemical plants unmolested and spend hours dancing a jig, naked, on top of highly hazardous chemical tanks, while toting backpack that could easily be filled with high explosives.

The measures suggested by the Times to prevent a terrorist-inspired Bhopal should be noted. Leading the list is the one and only proposal actively promoted by the American Chemical Council: tigher plant security, also known as more guns, guards and gates.

The other ideas are more important: using safer chemicals, reducing quantities of dangerous chemicals where safer substitutes can't be found, limiting chemical facilities in highly populated areas, and government oversight of chemical safety. Government oversight means requiring plants to identify their vulnerabilities to the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Homeland Security, and to meet federal safety standards, as opposed to meeting industry-created voluntary standards.

Aside from the first item, the best part about the other proposals is that they would not only contribute to ensuring our safety against terrorist attacks on our refineries and chemical plants, but they would also protect us from ourselves. Because we don't need no stinkin' terrrorists to blow our plants up. The biggest refinery disaster in recent years was at the Texas City BP Amoco plant where an explosion killed 15 workers at the end of March. Happily, that incident had no offsite consequences -- happy indeed, considering that plant undoubtedly contains considerable quantities of chemicals that could have impacted surrounding communities, including the quaint nearby village of Houston, Texas. The jury may still be out on the offsite consequences of the Formosa Plastics vinyl chloride plant that blew itself sky high last year, killing 5 and spewing viny chloride and possibly dioxins into the night air. And then there's the rail accidents whose chemical fallout kill a few here and there.

The Times editors note that a bill introduced by Senators Jon Corzine (D-NJ) and Susan Collins (D-ME) include these proposals, but could be watered down to only the first if an industry-supported bill introduced by Senator James Inhoffe (R-OK) prevails. The ACC boasts that it is supporting chemical safety legislation. But the devil, as they say, is in the details. And the industry/Inhoffe details don't go far enough -- in times of "war" or in times of peace.

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