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Chemical Reaction

Pressure for federal safety standards builds as experts warn of the threat of a terror attack on chemical plantsIt turns out all those not-so-scenic vistas of chemical plants and tank farms along the New Jersey Turnpike are more than just fodder for stand-up comics who make the state?s shortcomings a standard part of their routines.
The volatile mix of highly populated areas tucked in and around a patchwork of plants handling potentially deadly chemicals has led to growing pressure for uniform federal safety standards to secure the facilities from terrorist attack?something the industry has strongly resisted in the past.
?If you are going to have the population protected, there has to be protection across the board,? says Carolyn Merritt, chair of the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, which investigates serious accidents at chemical plants across the U.S.
Some of the plants that most worry security experts are clustered along the Hudson River in a two-mile corridor between Newark Liberty International Airport and Port Elizabeth. The group includes the Bayway refinery?the largest oil refinery on the East Coast?owned by ConocoPhillips, and the Infineum chemical plant, both in Linden.
Infineum, a joint venture of Exxon Chemical and Shell, handles large amounts of chlorine at the Linden facility. According to a risk report filed last year with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in a worst-case scenario a release from a rail car filled with chlorine gas could threaten 4.2 million people in a 14-mile radius with death or serious injury.
The Kuehne Chemical plant in South Kearny, just five miles to the north, poses an even more serious threat. The plant makes chlorine bleach sold under the Clorox and Purex labels. The release of a full rail car?s load of chlorine gas from that location could threaten 12 million people in a 14-mile radius, according to a 2003 risk report filed with the EPA.
An attack on a chemical plant that causes a release of either chlorine or ammonia, both of which are widely used and both of which can be fatal if inhaled, is the prospect that worries security experts the most.
But unlike nuclear power plants, whose security is governed by elaborate federal rules and regulations, chemical facilities receive little or no oversight from Washington when it comes to countering a possible attack. Among those championing such oversight is U.S. Senator Jon Corzine, the presumptive Democratic nominee for governor, who first proposed legislation shortly after 9/11. While the chemical industry helped stymie that measure, some groups now concede the need for federal requirements.
?We absolutely think there is an important role for the federal government here to make sure that all chemical facilities are taking the same kinds of security measures that our guys are, and that the DHS [Department of Homeland Security] has the ability to enforce them,? says Kate McGloon, a spokeswoman for the American Chemistry Council (ACC). The Virginia-based group represents most of the largest U.S. chemical producers.
McGloon says that since 9/11 the 143 ACC members have spent $2 billion to upgrade security at the just-under 2,000 chemical plants that they control. But that?s still fewer than 13% of the 15,000 U.S. chemical plants.
Overall, New Jersey is home to 11 of the 123 chemical plants in the country that the EPA believes could each threaten 1 million or more people if they were attacked. The state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) counts 103 chemical plants and other facilities around the state where the most hazardous chemicals are stored.
State officials say much has been done in the three-and-a-half years since 9/11 to cut the risk of a terror attack on the plants. They credit cooperation from the companies that own the facilities that pose the greatest potential threat to the public.
Hal Bozarth, president of the Chemical Industry Council of New Jersey, says his 85 member companies have been working hard to upgrade security at their plants and have spent more than $80 million on improvements since 9/11. Beyond obvious changes like more guards, cameras and higher fences, most of the steps that have been taken are being kept secret for security reasons. Bozarth says he favors federal security standards because he wants to see a measure that ?gets everybody to do what we do in New Jersey.?
But some local plant workers and community groups complain that they have been left out of the process. ?We?re really disappointed that unions haven?t been involved in discussions on the plans; communities haven?t been involved. It?s basically the companies self-policing themselves and we?re not too happy about that,? says John Shinn, a staff representative for the United Steelworkers in Edison. Following a union merger last month, the Steelworkers represent more than 12,500 chemical workers in New Jersey.
Corzine, who has made homeland security a theme of his gubernatorial campaign, says he took up the chemical plant issue as a result of the aerial view of the potentially explosive infrastructure he got while flying in and out of Newark airport. ?It?s a safety and security issue for the people of the state,? Corzine says. ?Look at where many of these plants are located?in the most densely populated state in the nation and the most densely populated parts of the state. It is a real danger that needs to be clearly assessed.?
After several years of frustration in the Republican-led Congress, Corzine seems to be making some headway. The bill he first introduced in 2001 called on the EPA to set security standards for chemical plants and would have directed the facilities to switch to ?inherently safer technology??less toxic materials and processes?wherever possible.
Corzine had strong backing from environmental groups but his bill quickly ran into fierce opposition from lobbyists for the chemical and petroleum industries and was twice blocked in the Senate. Opponents derided it as an environmental wish list in disguise and said it would put basic business decisions in regulators? hands.
Things have since changed. The issue of chemical plant security is now before the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, led by moderates Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Joseph Lieberman (D-Connecticut). Both want a bipartisan bill to emerge from their efforts. The committee began a series of hearings on the issue last month.
Corzine is seeking a compromise bill that would set standards for plant security and evacuation plans and require independent audits of security programs. He also wants plants that could be the targets of attacks to integrate their disaster plans with those of local officials. He has backed away from requiring chemical makers to switch to safer substitutes or processes, but he still thinks those options should be examined.
?Some of the industry has been quite responsible,? Corzine says. ?But we continue to get anecdotal information that not all chemical facilities are doing what they need to be doing on security upgrades.?
Mike Wright, director of health, safety and environment issues for the United Steelworkers in Pittsburgh, says he wants to see a bill that requires chemical makers to consider safer ways of making their products. But, he says, ?we recognize in this Congress, we probably have to do things incrementally.?
In the House of Representatives, Robert Menendez (D-13th District), whose district includes the two-mile strip of chemical plants near Newark airport and the Kuehne plant, earlier this month pushed through a $50 million rider to the appropriations bill for the Department of Homeland Security. His measure would create grants to help state and local authorities around the country respond to or prevent attacks on chemical plants. He calls chemical plant security ?an issue that needs frontline attention.?
If Congress fails to act on chemical safety standards, DEP Commissioner Brad Campbell says the state is ready to step in with its own measures. Maryland adopted its own standards last year. Campbell says the DEP is working on rules to encourage chemical plants to use safer materials and processes and to open up the security planning process to comment by plant workers and community members.
Meanwhile, one expert who testified before the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee last month painted an alarming picture. Richard Falkenrath, a former Homeland Security Adviser to President Bush who is now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., said from a terrorist?s point of view, chemical sites would be ?substantially easier to attack than improvised nuclear devices or effective biological weapon[s] are to acquire or fabricate.?
According to Falkenrath, ?anecdotal information of poor or nonexistent security in [the chemical] sector is overwhelming.? He said he doubts that ?profit-maximizing corporations?will ever voluntarily provide the level of security? society needs. He called for giving the federal government the power to set safety standards for chemical plants.
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THE State?s 100 MOST HAZARDOUS CHEMICAL SITES
Hazardous
Industry Facilities
Chemical 56
Water Treatment 15
Food 13
Petroleum 7
Electric Utilities 6
Pharmaceutical 2
Wastewater Treatment 1
Source: New Jersey Department of
Environmental Protection
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