Chemical Plants and Terrorist Threats

New Jersey is home to some of the most dangerous chemical plants in the country. If chemicals were ever released into the air, they could threaten millions of people living in close proximity. But in time since the Sept. 11 attacks, attempts to pass legislation to make the facilities safer have failed. Nancy Solomon reports.

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Some of the most dangerous chemical plants in this country are in New Jersey, just upwind of New York City. A release of lethal chemical clouds could threaten a million lives or more. Yet in the four years since September 11th, 2001, all attempts to pass legislation to keep dangerous chemical facilities secure have failed, both nationally and in New Jersey. Nancy Solomon reports.

NANCY SOLOMON reporting:

Huge white chemical tanks sit alongside the New Jersey Turnpike, an odd welcome to the most densely populated region in the country. The chemical plants have been here since New Jersey's industrial heyday, and don't get all that much attention. But not long after Hurricane Katrina showed the nation how ill-prepared it is to deal with a disaster, northern New Jersey residents got a glimpse of some of the dangers these chemical plants pose.

(Soundbite of newscast)

Unidentified Man: Here's what's happening. Officials in Hudson County are telling residents to stay inside and close the windows after an acid leak has resulted in a plume of potentially irritating vapor being sent into the air over Jersey City.

SOLOMON: The leak turned out to be minor, but a major release could send a deadly cloud drifting toward any number of population centers, most notably Hoboken, Jersey City or Manhattan. New Jersey has 101 plants that store or use lethal chemicals. And all across the country, rail lines and highways transport chemicals directly through residential areas.

Mr. FRED MILLAR: People are in blissful ignorance of this. I mean, it's only the public that doesn't know this information.

SOLOMON: Fred Millar has been working on chemical plant safety for more than 20 years, first with environmental organizations, and now as a consultant to many major cities. He says the Bush administration has done nothing to require more security at plants, on rail lines or at ports, and a terrorist attack could kill thousands of people in a half-hour.

Mr. MILLAR: The fire chiefs know it. The police know it. The FBI knows it. The emergency managers know it. The plant managers know it. And they just are not telling the public. And that is what puts us at great risk because we don't work hard enough at all to try to eliminate some of these risks, which in some cases can be done quite easily; in other cases, will require an expenditure of money.

SOLOMON: New Jersey Senator Jon Corzine has proposed national standards since October 2001. His bills would require any chemical plant in a heavily populated area not only to beef up security but figure out whether they can use safer chemicals or stockpile smaller amounts.

Senator JON CORZINE (Democrat, New Jersey): I'm not trying to broadly mandate standards for every chemical plant, but when a million people or 12 million people, which--we have one plant in New Jersey surrounding it, I think the federal government, and the state government, if the federal government won't take those actions, should have the authority--I think it has a responsibility--to make sure that everybody's secure.

SOLOMON: Corzine's bill never passed due to lobbying by the chemical industry. Even in New Jersey, where his own Democratic Party controlled the Statehouse, no security regulations have been passed since 9/11. Jack Gerard, president of the American Chemistry Council, which represents more than 2,000 facilities nationwide, says the industry objects to Corzine's requirement that plants use safer technology.

Mr. JACK GERARD (President, American Chemistry Council): There's no accepted definition as to what IST, or Inherently Safer Technology, constitutes. And rather to get off on some sidetrack, let's leave those issues to the process experts who understand the science, who understand the engineering, and let's go enact federal uniform standards for chemical security.

SOLOMON: Those standards would focus on guards, fences and security cameras.

(Soundbite of beeping noise; doors opening and closing)

SOLOMON: At the DuPont chemical plant in southern New Jersey, security is coordinated in a high-tech emergency control center with a bank of video screens that monitor the largest plant in the state.

Mr. JOHN STRAIGHT(ph) (Manager, DuPont): This is manned 24-7.

SOLOMON: A guard uses a joystick to control the cameras, scan a fenceline or zoom into the high grass beyond. Plant manager John Straight says DuPont has spent millions to upgrade security.

Mr. STRAIGHT: We worked on fencing, all kinds of detection systems that we put in that were state of the art. We improved our inspection processes. With 9/11, we improved every one of those things that we looked at.

SOLOMON: This is the birthplace of Teflon, and now DuPont makes chemicals here that go into bullet-proof vests and other products. The security guards used to be highly paid unionized DuPont employees. But now all are hired by an outside contractor. The company wouldn't say what they're paid, but Jim Roe(ph), a chemical operator at the plant, says it's much less than the $26 an hour the guards used to make. Roe is president of his union local and has been at the plant for 34 years.

Mr. JIM ROE (Local Union President): They have gotten all the way away from what we used to have, which was people with knowledge that knew how to respond to a major release.

SOLOMON: DuPont says its new video systems and other technologies reduce the company's need for extra workers. But Fred Millar, the chemical safety expert, says it's impossible to stop all terrorist attacks. So security must also include switching to safer chemicals and rerouting cargo away from residential areas.

Mr. MILLAR: How can you measure security by just how many cards or how many gates there are or how many fences there are or how many lights or cameras there are? It's nowhere near as good a measure as `Have you actually removed the threat?'

SOLOMON: The issue has been passed on to the Senate Homeland Security Committee and new legislation has been promised by its chairperson, Republican Susan Collins of Maine. Now that Senator Corzine has been elected governor of New Jersey, the state will most certainly see tougher restrictions. Millar says that will help make New Jersey safer. But without national standards, it will just shift the threat to other states, less willing to regulate the industry. For NPR News, I'm Nancy Solomon.

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