It is the deadliest target in a swath of industrial northern New Jersey that terrorism experts call the most dangerous two miles in America: a chemical plant that processes chlorine gas, so close to Manhattan that the Empire State Building seems to rise up behind its storage tanks.Port security isn't much better:
According to federal Environmental Protection Agency records, the plant poses a potentially lethal threat to 12 million people who live within a 14-mile radius.
Yet on a recent Friday afternoon, it remained loosely guarded and accessible. Dozens of trucks and cars drove by within 100 feet of the tanks. A reporter and photographer drove back and forth for five minutes, snapping photos with a camera the size of a large sidearm, then left without being approached.
That chemical plant is just one of dozens of vulnerable sites between Newark Liberty International Airport and Port Elizabeth, which extends two miles to the east. A Congressional study in 2000 by a former Coast Guard commander deemed it the nation's most enticing environment for terrorists, providing a convenient way to cripple the economy by disrupting major portions of the country's rail lines, oil storage tanks and refineries, pipelines, air traffic, communications networks and highway system.
As for the ports, the federal Homeland Security Department's inspector general's office recently criticized the agency for directing much of its $517 million in port security money to relatively low-risk sites in places like Kentucky and Tennessee, and not giving enough to busy, vulnerable facilities like Port Newark. Although the Port of New York and New Jersey recently received an additional $42 million for counterterrorism efforts, Port Newark lacks the up-to-date equipment now used to search cargo at ports like Hong Kong.The problem at chemical plants is that the federal government won't face up to the fact that strong regulations are needed to force the plants to implement more security and less hazardous processes:
"We put more resources into securing the average large bank in Manhattan than we do for the entire security of Port Newark," said Stephen Flynn, a former Coast Guard commander who is now a security analyst for the Council on Foreign Relations and who conducted the study that first identified this part of North Jersey as the nation's most terror-prone two miles. "That's just irresponsible."
A spokeswoman for the [American] Chemistry Council, an industry group representing 150 of the nation's largest chemical plants, said the group's members had already invested $2 billion in improved security and were working with Congress to establish standardized federal safety guidelines.What's happening is that the American Chemical Council is favoring federal regulatoins that would essentially codify the ACC's voluntary "Responsible Care" security code, which consists of more guns, guards and gates. Environmental organizations (and Senator Corzine's bill) argue that perimeter security will never be perfect (and three and a half years after 9/11, it's not even close), so the answer is to reduce the hazard itself by implementing inherently safer processes wherever possible.
"We want to work with the Department of Homeland Security and Congress to make these plants safer in a way that works for everyone," Kate McGloon, the spokeswoman, said.
Michelle Petrovich, a Department of Homeland Security spokeswoman, said agency officials had visited more than half the nation's 300 most dangerous plants and urged the companies to enhance perimeter security and switch to less hazardous chemicals and processes. As a result, Ms. Petrovich said, she believes North Jersey is "one of the safer areas because it has received the most attention in terms of protective measures."
But Richard A. Falkenrath, a former deputy homeland security adviser to the White House, said that effort has done little to make the public safer. "Saying that you're doing something doesn't mean you're actually making a difference," said Mr. Falkenrath, who recently testified before Congress, urging tighter regulation of the chemical industry.
Since 2001, at least two major efforts to bolster chemical plant security have been stalled, in part by industry lobbyists.
The latest proposal to tighten security at chemical plants, which appears to be gaining support in Congress, would establish safety guidelines. But Senator Jon S. Corzine said that it is only a half measure because it would not mandate that plants in densely populated areas stop using highly dangerous chemicals like chlorine gas and switch to more benign alternatives, like sodium hypochlorite. The plants use such chemicals to make antiseptics for water purification plants.
Meanwhile, nothing happens on Capitol Hill, and reporters (and who knows who else) continue to be able to wander unmolested around plants that have the potential to kill millions.
Update: New York Times editorial:
Senator Corzine's persistent efforts to upgrade chemical plant security have been thwarted by the chemical industry and by the Bush administration's lack of support. He is now working on a new bill, in collaboration with Senators Susan Collins and Joseph Lieberman, that is likely to make some concessions to the chemical industry to improve its chances of passage. If Congress and the White House are serious about protecting the nation, they will make sure that his bill becomes law in the strongest possible form. There is an urgent need for greater security at the plant sites. The industry should also be required to replace dangerous chemicals with safer alternatives. These steps may sound like common sense, but they have run into entrenched political opposition. The Bush administration's antiregulatory philosophy makes it reluctant to impose rules on private industry. And the chemical industry, a major campaign donor, seems intent on not spending the money that a strong safety law would cost it. Christie Whitman, the former E.P.A. administrator, became so frustrated by her inability to make any progress that she asked to be relieved of responsibility for chemical plant safety.
- "We can't protect ourselves if we are not part of the plan", February 20, 2005
- NY Chem Company Decides Terrorism Threat Is Over, February 6, 2005
- Department of Homeland Security: Buddy Can You Spare a Dime?, September 27, 2004
- Weapons of Mass Destruction Found -- In Our Backyards, November 17, 2003
- The War for Chemical Plant Safety, May 4, 2003