Public-health risks from dangerous chemicals hit home for many Carolinians in January, when a train accident in Graniteville, SC, released pure chlorine gas that killed 10 people. Those of us who were paying attention in the days after 9/11 got an earlier warning when the media reported on a chlorine storage facility just miles from Manhattan. If the terrorists had hit that facility instead of the World Trade Center, up to 12 million people could have died.
You don't have to go out of town to find risks from deadly chemicals. Just take a look at JCI Jones Chemicals in northwest Charlotte. From the outside, it doesn't appear much different from any other typical industrial neighbor. But it is. Within JCI Jones' fences, topped by three single lines of barbed wire, is the possibility of an unthinkable, albeit unlikely, worst-case scenario that could harm more than 878,000 people -- more than every man, woman and child within Charlotte's city limits.
Several groups have warned that such disaster scenarios could be made all too real by terrorists. Federal agencies, chemical industry groups and environmental organizations all have warned about the catastrophic possibilities chemical facilities pose. And all have warned about the need to protect them.
And yet, four years after 9/11, chemical plant security largely remains in the hands of the chemical industry itself. Many public interest, consumer and environmental groups, not to mention members of Congress, say that governments and companies aren't doing nearly enough to secure chemical plants.
"It seems like most of the laws in place now focus on reducing the harm from the accident instead of implementing programs and policies that focus on preventing accidents," said Christine Wunsche, environmental attorney for NC Public Interest Research Group.
In Charlotte, 18 businesses use so many chemicals that they are required to report worst-case scenarios to federal authorities, according to risk management plans obtained by the Right-To-Know Network, a group that makes available several environmental databases. (These risk management plans were taken off the EPA's website after 9/11.)
The Environmental Protection Agency has listed at least 15,000 facilities in the United States that produce, use or store large quantities of hazardous chemicals. The US Department of Homeland Security estimates there are 3,400 facilities that could harm more than 1,000 people if attacked, and nearly 300 that could hurt more than 50,000 people.
Yet despite all the warnings and studies and facts, the government has done nothing to increase security at the nation's chemical facilities.
Seven weeks after 9/11, a US Senate committee unanimously passed a bill to require chemical plants to take steps to protect the public from terrorist attacks. But the Bush administration, responding to chemical industry requests, scuttled the bill. Afterward, the White House went further and removed the EPA's authority to demand improvements in chemical plant security.
Subsequent reform efforts, including a bill pushed by Sen. Jon Corzine, D-New Jersey, that would allow Homeland Security and the EPA to regulate chemical security, have not been passed by Congress after years of attempts. Neither has a proposal by Sen. Joe Biden, D-Delaware, which would let local governments petition the Department of Homeland Security to keep hazardous material from passing through designated "high-threat" corridors.
Former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge's top aide, Al Martinez-Fonts, a former executive at JPMorgan Chase, told Associated Press his department was reluctant to force the chemical industry to adopt security reforms: "I was in the private sector all my life. Did I like it when the government came in and stepped in and told [us] to do certain things? The answer's no.... I think we're trying to avoid that."
This isn't to say chemical facilities operate in a vacuum. Companies had to report the chemicals they used long before 9/11, said Renee Hoffman, director of public affairs for the NC Department of Crime Control and Public Safety. Gary McCormick, hazardous materials coordinator for Charlotte-Mecklenburg, said authorities now have a list of high-risk facilities. "Previously, we probably knew where they were. However, these have now been firmed up," said McCormick, who's also on the Local Emergency Planning Committee. Authorities are now writing facility-specific plans, he said.
Companies also submitted to federal agencies extensive, detailed reports such as risk management plans -- which is where the NC Public Interest Research Group found JCI Jones Chemicals' worst-case scenario. The company supplies chemicals, such as chlorine, needed to disinfect water systems. Chlorine can severely burn the eyes and skin, irritate the throat, or cause coughing, nose bleeds and fluid build-up in the lungs. And, as we saw in Graniteville, it can cause death.
Some public utilities are searching for alternatives to chlorine. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities now uses ultraviolet light instead of chlorine gas to disinfect wastewater at its five plants, but still uses chlorine gas to disinfect drinking water. Spokesman Vic Simpson said ultraviolet light is safer and easier for treating wastewater, but chlorine gas is still the industry standard for disinfecting drinking water.
Simpson said the utility has strengthened previous security and improved relationships with law enforcement. "We feel like we've taken the appropriate steps to provide secure facilities to protect the public and our employees," he said.
JCI Jones Chemicals directed questions to its Florida headquarters, which did not return our calls. But according to its risk management plan, the company puts "top priority to operating in a safe and environmentally sound manner." Which, of course, is good. But it's hardly an increase in security against terrorists.