America's Achilles' heel

If terrorists strike a chemical plant just nine miles from Times Square, millions could die. But the chemical industry and its friends in Washington are blocking tough safeguards.

Published March 19, 2003 12:07AM (EST)

Just nine miles from Times Square stands the comparatively unimposing cluster of white silos and modest buildings that make up the Kuehne Chemical Co. Most New Yorkers have surely never heard of the plant, nor do they have any idea how important the chemicals stored here could be to their lives.

Specifically, their safety depends very much on the security at Kuehne and other plants like it. And based on a random visit here last week, the security doesn't appear particularly intimidating if a terrorist has plans on doing more than just trespassing.

According to Sen. Jon Corzine, D-N.J., chemical plants are indeed among the documented targets of al-Qaida. "There have been conversations that have been tapped into by intelligence operatives about attacking infrastructure and chemical plants," Corzine says. "One of those led to the February state of alert." A Department of Homeland Security bulletin that month warned that "Al Qa'ida operatives also may attempt to launch conventional attacks against the U.S. nuclear/chemical-industrial infrastructure to cause contamination, disruption and terror. Based on information, nuclear power plants and industrial chemical plants remain viable targets."

Which makes the parking lot of the Kuehne plant a uniquely scary place to stand. As the United States stands on the brink of war with Iraq, terrorism and Middle East experts warn us that al-Qaida is already using the prospective war as a rallying cause. Rohan Gunaratna, the author of "Inside al-Qaeda: Global Network of Terror," told Salon that a U.S. attack on Iraq, without United Nations support, could arouse terrorist "sleeper cells"; such an attack could seem like a war against Islam, and sleeper cells might rationalize, "'My God, we went and trained in Afghanistan, and now we must go and fight the infidels.'" And that's what contributes to making Kuehne a possible ground zero. Its lethal combination: proximity to a densely populated area and some of the deadliest chemicals around. A well-executed attack upon it could kill 12 million Americans.

"In the event of a total failure of a railroad tank car of chlorine which discharges its entire contents within a 10-minute time frame, the resulting cloud of chlorine vapor would be immediately dangerous to both life and health for a distance exceeding 14 miles." That's not propaganda from Greenpeace -- it's from the company's own risk management plan. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, of the 123 chemical plants in the U.S. that each put at least 1 million Americans at risk, Kuehne Chemical is No. 1 in terms of the number of people in its vulnerability zone. Security has been beefed up here since Sept. 11, Peter Kuehne Jr., tells me after I pull up unannounced to a sliding gate. "Before then, we were primarily focused on safety concerns," says Kuehne, the plant's chief operating officer, whose ancestors founded the firm in 1919 and whose father currently runs it. "No one ever thought that someone would actually come in and try to blow everything up."

But I wonder: Beyond the plant's relatively flimsy-looking electronic gates, its barbed-wire-garnished chain-link fence, and the bicycle locks that secure some of its gates, would it really be so difficult for me to infiltrate the Kuehne Chemical Co.? If I were driving an explosives-laden vehicle, I think I could crash through the fence. And what if I had one of those Man-Portable Air Defense Systems, or MANPADS, like the al-Qaida operatives in Kenya? The security guards here -- one shuffles to the gate a minute or so after I arrive; another drives up in a black pickup truck shortly thereafter -- aren't that daunting. Kuehne Chemical still seems to be counting on reasonable attackers who wouldn't be willing to damage their cars or scuff a pant leg, much less perform an act of suicidal/homicidal jihad.

So why isn't the government imposing tougher restrictions on this, possibly our most vulnerable flank? Corzine has tried to, authoring a bill that quickly and unanimously passed a Senate committee last year. It seemed to be a no-brainer, especially after the Chattanooga Times Free Press reported that in the spring of 2001, Mohamed Atta had been spotted on a possible scouting mission to a Tennessee chemical plant to find out just what chemicals they were storing. The EPA -- according to an early draft obtained by Salon -- appeared to be drafting its own tougher restrictions, in line with Corzine's suggestion.

But plans for mandated security at the most dangerous of these plants soon ran into a toxic cloud of special interest money from the chemical industry. Republican senators who had voted for the Corzine bill flip-flopped into opposition; Democrats, who -- lest we forget -- then ran the Senate, suspiciously froze the Corzine bill from the Senate floor. The bill went nowhere. To many observers, Corzine's experience spelled out a heartbreaking truth: Sept. 11 changed little about the legislative process in Washington, except for maybe creating previously unexplored heights of cynicism.

After Sept. 11, Corzine, like so many others, started looking around to see where else we were vulnerable. One Achilles' heel sprang to mind, because about once a week, Corzine flies from D.C. into Newark International Airport. As the plane glides closer to earth, the soft-spoken former CEO of Goldman Sachs looks out the window and pictures "a plane flying into the storage tanks at all the chemical processing facilities," he tells Salon. While nuclear power plants are generally far from population centers and have fairly tight security, such is not the case with far too many chemical plants, Corzine says.

Corzine has been trying since November 2001 to get someone to listen about the risk. He wrote a bill mandating that the most dangerous of those companies conduct a review of their potential vulnerabilities and hazards and develop a plan, with the government, to make sure that these soft spots are never hit, both by beefing up security and using safer technologies. To Corzine, the bill seemed logical, sensible. The least the government and the industry could do.

Atta, after all, wasn't the first terrorist to contemplate this kind of attack. In the 1990s, law enforcement foiled two attempted terrorist attacks against chemical plants by homegrown zealots. In April 1997, four white supremacists were arrested for plotting to blow up 10 storage tanks, each holding up to 10,000 gallons of what they thought to be hydrogen-sulfide gas at the Mitchell Energy and Development Corp. near Bridgeport, Texas. (The tanks actually contained far less dangerous liquefied natural gas.)

Two years later, two alleged members of the San Joaquin County Militia were busted for plotting a millennial explosion of two 122-foot-tall tanks at the Suburban Propane storage facility in Elk Grove, Calif., near Sacramento. Elk Grove Fire Chief Mark Meaker told reporters that if such an attack were carried out, "there could be a blast of heat, shrapnel and other hazards spreading up to a mile" -- a not inconsiderable problem considering the facility's close proximity to two other industrial buildings, state Highway 99, and a housing subdivision. The San Francisco Examiner reported that the tanks contained enough propane to "immolate every living thing for five miles."

The chemical industry tends to pooh-pooh such reports, calling them alarmist. Suburban Propane said that had the Y2K militia men succeeded at exploding the tanks, the worst damage occurring to any Elk Grove area homes would be some shaken foundations and broken windows. After all, says Kate McGloon, spokeswoman for the American Chemistry Council -- to which Dow, DuPont, Union Carbide, and 190 or so others, belong -- "according to [the Occupational Safety & Health Administration] we're four and a-half times safer than any other U.S. industry."

But James Carafano, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, listens to the sounds coming from the chemical industry and hears echoes of the airline industry. "We wouldn't have had a [Transportation Security Administration, formed after the terrorist attacks] if we had been a little more stringent on our requirements on the airline industry before Sept. 11," he says. "We need to pay more attention to catastrophic attacks than we have. Someone once said, 'Don't confuse the unfamiliar with the improbable.'" Should al-Qaida strike again, it will inevitably try to up the ante, Carafano says. "And if they launch an attack on a chemical plant, they will be exposing a vulnerability we knew existed."

Kuehne Chemical Co. provides a number of products for its customers, but the ones terrorism experts are most concerned about are the chlorine it manufactures and the sulfur dioxide it sells. While the average citizen is likely to have benign thoughts associated with chlorine, its effectiveness in killing pathogens in, say, a swimming pool is what makes it so dangerous. The threat has been documented for nearly a century: At sunrise on April 22, 1915, at the second battle of Ypres, German soldiers released 168 tons of dense, greenish-yellow chlorine gas against French Algerian and territorial division troops, killing 5,000 soldiers within 10 minutes.

Sulfur dioxide, which reacts violently when mixed with chlorine, is a colorless gas with a pungent odor; if Atta had chosen to crash his plane into Tennessee's Boliden Intertrade chemical plant, he could have released 250 tons of sulfur dioxide gas into the air, potentially killing 60,000 locals, according to Boliden's own worst-case assessment.

According to Corzine, al-Qaida knows of these vulnerabilities.

And despite the lack of legislation to correct the matter, many in our government are more than aware of the risks, as well.

An Oct. 29, 2001, medical hazard threat assessment by the Army surgeon general obtained by the Washington Post estimated the possible damage from a chemical-plant attack: In an unspecified but densely populated area, with the total release of all chemicals under ideal weather conditions, the worst-case scenario would result in death or injury to 2.4 million Americans.

On Wednesday, Attorney General John Ashcroft acknowledged the threat of these potential attacks during a visit to the federal courthouse in Charleston, W.Va., after meeting with the state's anti-terrorism task force. "We are trying to harden our infrastructure to terrorist threats," he said, noting that the area's chemical manufacturing plants "have gotten a lot of attention."

A lot of attention isn't, unfortunately, the same thing as a lot of action. After Sept. 11, the government cracked down on a lot of the public information about chemical plants that could be used by terrorists -- stripping down studies from Web sites, locking up vulnerability assessments, limiting right-to-know laws. But there has yet to be any federal action requiring chemical plants to enhance their security. This despite the fact that government knowledge of the threat predates 9/11 -- the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry reported in 1999 that "security at chemical plants ranged from fair to very poor" and that "security around chemical transportation assets ranged from poor to non-existent." (This from a study taken down from the ATSDR Web site.)

Representing the companies that manufacture 90 percent or so of the chemicals made in the U.S., the ACC has successfully lobbied for years against any sort of mandatory security requirement. The organization argues that all plants are different, so one federal standard would be silly; they pleaded that the Corzine bill would impose too harsh an economic cost on an industry that isn't particularly robust.

They say that environmental organizations that hated them pre-9/11 for other reasons are now exploiting the threat of terrorism to accomplish their tree-hugging goals. Moreover, they say, they have been beefing up their security. Kuehne says he now stores less chlorine in South Kearny than the state allows him to. Kuehne says that his firm has undergone "a comprehensive security vulnerability analysis to identify potential security issues" using the safety protocols from the Center for Chemical Process Safety, reviewed by an independent third-party consulting firm.

He lauds the "improved perimeter security, including better fences, enhanced lighting, video monitoring and regular perimeter patrols by armed security personnel" as well as "enhanced security procedures, including more restricted visitor access and background checks of contractors."

Kuehne also seems to disagree with my view that a suicidal zealot in a good-size SUV could easily barrel through these "better fences." The fence adjacent to Hackensack Avenue is "structurally protected by large concrete blocks" that require "heavy equipment" to move before large vehicles can pass through. "They provide a reasonable assurance," Kuehne says, "that a vehicle cannot drive through the fence." A "reasonable assurance."

One might argue, of course, that we're supposed to be anticipating the unreasonable.

The chemical industry lobbying association's McGloon insists that the industry is fully aware of the dangers. "It flies within the face of reason to think that we're not doing everything we can to make our plants as safe and secure as possible," she says, arguing that chemical plant executives have the greatest reason to fear the worst. At a Nov. 14, 2001, hearing at the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Bill Stanley, the regulatory manager of Deepwater Chemicals in Woodward, Okla., testifying on behalf of a small chemical plant trade association, made a similar point. Stanley argued that the industry has "incentives to ensure safety and security in all of our processes: We do not want accidents, nor do we want to be the victim of an attack. I work in my facility. My friends work in the facility. My friends and neighbors are important to me. My failure to address these issues would impact me directly."

But Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., answered Stanley with a compelling question, "Do you think that the airlines want to have accidents, want to have terrorism?"

Some plants where these chemicals are stored have reacted swiftly to the risk they pose; estimates have half of all utilities getting rid of their liquid chlorine altogether. Explaining that a worse-case-scenario liquid chlorine toxic cloud could kill thousands of Washingtonians within a 10-mile radius, the general manager of the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority took decisive action in the days immediately following Sept. 11. Executives of the Blue Plains Wastewater Treatment Plant, located just 4 miles from the Capitol, beefed up their security, moved approximately 900 tons of liquid chlorine and sulfur dioxide to more secure locations, and accelerated plans to convert from liquid chlorine to a safer alternative, sodium hypochlorite bleach.

Reasons for the lack of action in most other plants are not impossible to figure out. Security enhancements and switching to safer alternatives will cost the $450 billion chemical industry a large chunk of its profits. So they make every argument they can against it.

Around the time that the Blue Plains Wastewater Treatment Plant was sneaking its chlorine out in the dead of night, Fred Webber, the ACC's president and CEO, went to the Senate to decry Corzine's bill. Webber -- who raised more than $100,000 for the presidential campaign of then-Gov. George W. Bush as a "pioneer" and who once headed the oft-derided U.S. League of Savings Institutions -- described the legislation as attempting "to remedy theoretical vulnerabilities before we've assessed what and where the actual vulnerabilities are." Webber's protestations notwithstanding, on July 25, 2002, the Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works approved Corzine's bill on a unanimous bipartisan vote, 19-0. Next stop was the full Senate.

"I heard from some chemical industry guys right after that," says one Senate staffer with knowledge of the bill. "They were saying, 'Don't be so comfortable with that vote.'"

That summer the ACC significantly increased its lobbying and loosened its wallet, the ACC and its member companies giving out $1.3 million in campaign contributions. Other groups like the American Farm Bureau Federation -- which loathes the EPA, which was to have been given authority over the bill's security measures -- joined in.

"Many people heard from the industry that it was going to be too expensive, or they didn't want to accept these expenses," Corzine says. "That's kind of the unsaid thing in all this."

In September, seven of the nine Republican senators who voted for it circulated a letter to their colleagues disowning the bill they'd passed in the Environment Committee. Sens. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, Bob Smith of New Hampshire, George Voinovich of Ohio, Mike Crapo of Idaho, Peter Domenici of New Mexico, and Kit Bond of Missouri said that the Corzine bill "misses the mark." They wanted to improve it, they wrote, because "we believe that Congress MUST work together to craft an effective solution to improving the security of our nation's chemical infrastructure." A study on the shanking of the Corzine bill by Common Cause reported that six of the senators plus two others who wrote letters opposing the bill -- Sens. George Allen, R-Va., and Richard Shelby, R-Ala. -- have received more than $850,000 from the ACC and its member companies.

Two Senate Republicans on the Environment Committee, Sens. John Warner, R-Va., and Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I., refused to rescind their support for the Corzine bill. Neither returned calls for comment.

Prior to the July vote, some Republicans pushed for modifications the chemical industry favored. They wanted to exempt facilities that complied with the ACC's voluntary guidelines, exclude any role for the EPA, and remove any requirement to pursue what environmentalists call "inherent safety" -- meaning safer alternative chemicals, like the sodium hypochlorite bleach now used at the Blue Plains plant. But in their letter, the seven senators questioned why the EPA would need additional staff to review the vulnerability assessments and response plans, for instance. "I'm not sure that any of those items were ever brought up in committee or in our discussions," the Senate staffer says. "It's sort of an odd letter in that respect. It was never said to us by the EPA -- or anyone else -- that this would be a problem. I mean, the EPA is a huge agency."

The EPA, meanwhile, had its own issues. Sources close to the bill thought that Administrator Christine Todd Whitman -- a former governor of New Jersey more than a little familiar with chemical plant issues and hazards -- was generally supportive of their efforts. An internal EPA draft "proposal for chemical security legislation" from May 16, 2002, obtained by Salon, bears numerous similarities to the Corzine bill. But something changed, and on June 11, documents were prepared for Whitman in case she needed to answer questions as to why EPA had "decided that it will not pursue legislation." On Oct. 3, Whitman and Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge wrote to the Washington Post that "voluntary efforts alone are not sufficient to provide the level of assurance Americans deserve." But a story in Chemical and Engineering News four days later reported that "Whitman stated recently that the EPA has opted for a voluntary approach for chemical plants to combat terrorist threats."

"The administration never took a position on the Corzine bill," insists Bob Bostock, assistant EPA administrator for homeland security. "We need legislation to require certain chemical facilities to assess and then address their vulnerabilities to a terrorist attack, and EPA is working with the Department of Homeland Security on coming up with a legislative proposal to send to the Hill."

But why has it taken so damn long? "It's a complicated issue," Bostock says.

But doesn't it seem odd that so much has been done in other areas to enhance security while nothing has been done in this one area with chemical plants? "That's not true," Bostock says, not exactly reassuringly: "There are lots of areas where there hasn't been any legislative action."

Liberals in the media have been quick to paint this tale as yet another story of the GOP and President Bush bending over for corporate America at the expense of the safety and the security of the American people. But throughout this debate the Democrats controlled the Senate. When the Senate reconvened after the summer recess, Corzine and Environment Committee Chairman Jim Jeffords -- the Vermont Independent whose defection from the GOP the previous year had made Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., majority leader -- asked Daschle and others in the leadership to attach the Corzine bill to the Homeland Security legislation.

But, the Senate staffer says, "leadership didn't help us." Throughout the debate over the Homeland Security bill, the Corzine bill was never permitted to be introduced.

Why is that? "There are some fairly influential Democrats here in the Senate who are doing the bidding of the chemical industry," specifically Sen. John Breaux of Louisiana, but also Sens. Mary Landrieu, of Louisiana, and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas. "They put pressure on the leadership not to bring the bill up."

Breaux spokesman Brian Weiss says that his boss opposed the bill not because of all the oil refineries and chemical plants in Louisiana, but because "he was concerned about the security risks and he believed putting EPA in charge of the security was not the right thing to do." He have preferred that the Department of Homeland Security handle the sensitive information, Weiss says.

Corzine, however, tells Salon that when the bill came down to the wire, he was prepared to give on that issue and let the Department of Homeland Security supervise chemical plant security instead of the EPA.

The Senate staffer with knowledge of the bill also wonders about Daschle, a member of the Agriculture Committee who at that point was contemplating a presidential run. During his last reelection campaign, in 1998, Daschle was the No. 8 Senate recipient of agribusiness cash, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The chemicals used in agriculture are some of the most volatile, the staffer says, and "the ag lobby, they don't want to have to give any information to the EPA. They hate the EPA and don't trust them for anything. So this bill was something controversial within a constituency Tom Daschle cares about."

Daschle spokesman Jay Carson denies that his boss didn't want to see the Corzine bill become law. He blames its not being introduced as an amendment on technical Senate rules the Democrats needed to invoke in order "to stop the Republicans from filibustering the Homeland Security bill. And one of down sides was there were some very good proposals like this chemical security bill that didn't become a part of it." The Corzine bill is one of the 10 bills Daschle has introduced as part of the legislation he'd like to see passed this year, Carson notes.

That doesn't reassure Corzine, who is no longer on the Environment Committee and who seems to sense that his bill missed its chance, particularly with the GOP running the show again. At the end of the debate last year, "we were working with Senator Inhofe" -- then the ranking Republican on the Environment Committee -- "to address some of the issues people were most concerned about, and I was prepared to compromise on a number of them, including making Homeland Security the lead agency," instead of the EPA, Corzine recalls. "I was trying to reach out to get this passed any way I could. But there was a limitation on the number of amendments that would be offered and the leadership had queued up what they wanted to get to first. Then we came down to the last moments and there wasn't enough time. I was very disappointed."

Asked if he's frustrated with what he's seen, Corzine says, "'Frustration' is not the word so much as 'angry.'" Congress is "not willing to address this issue important to the safety of the communities we're elected to represent."

Does he think his bill has any chance of becoming law? "Quite honestly?" he asks. "No."

Asked if he supports the Corzine bill, Kuehne demurs. "A well-structured program could be beneficial," he says, "but we are concerned that a poorly conceived and hastily implemented program would have the opposite effect. This issue is too important to allow politics to dictate policy." McGloon now says that the ACC supports some sort of mandatory requirement for its companies. Why didn't it last year? Why did it work so hard to derail Corzine's bill, so that 18 months after Sept. 11 nothing has been done about the tremendous risk chemical plants pose for all of us? "Everybody talks about last year, but we're focused on this year," she says.

Then again, there were a lot of reasons the ACC would want to forget last year, including regular reports of poor security at their plants. Last Sept. 3, environmental activists Frank and Rosa Ferreira went to South Kearney and, wandering up and down the chain-link fence, videotaped the Kuehne plant for 20 minutes. No one approached them once. Two days later they did it again. Again, no one said boo. In July 2002, Richard Pienciak of the New York Daily News visited the Matheson Tri-Gas facility in East Rutherford, N.J., where a worst-case scenario would send 100,000 pounds of toxic hydrochloric acid gas into the area, killing 100,000. Pienciak found no apparent security -- and an open and unguarded fence. In April 2002, Carl Prine of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review remarkably sashayed into 30 chemical plants, warehouses and transport centers in Baltimore, Chicago and Houston.

Earlier this month, the ACC announced that it was launching a $50 million advertising and public relations campaign to improve its image.

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

MORE FROM Jake Tapper

Related Topics ------------------------------------------