Chemical Plants: Go Well beyond 'Well Prepared'

Article excerpt

Pathogens may have to be "weaponized" to turn them into agents of mass destruction, but industrial chemicals already are. They "provide terrorists with effective and readily accessible materials to develop improvised explosives, incendiaries and poisons," concluded a 1999 federal study of dozens of facilities. Yet security ranges "from fair to very poor," the analysis found. Key employees are not subject to background checks, barge terminals that handle chemicals are accessible and rail and truck facilities typically have no security beyond staging areas. Rail cars with cyanide compounds, flammable liquid pesticides, liquefied petroleum gases, chlorine, acids and butadiene park by residential areas. The office that produced the report, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, has now pulled it from its Web site.

Law-enforcement agencies knew long before Sept. 11 that chemical facilities offered an inviting target: in the late 1990s the FBI foiled a plot by the Ku Klux Klan to blow up a Texas gas refinery. But as companies beef up security by issuing new ID badges and increasing the number of security officers at gates and on patrol--and as the government pitches in with, for instance, air surveillance by the Texas Air National Guard over refineries and chemical plants--they are falling short. This month infiltrators in frogmen suits slipped into the ship channel that flows past a Sterling Chemicals, Inc., plant in Texas City. Silently climbing out near the facility, they gained access (Sterling spokesman Mark Kahil declines to detail how, for obvious reasons). The frogmen were cops testing security at the plant, which manufactures styrene (which can cause respiratory irritation and mutations), acrylonitrile (headache, nausea, cancer), acetic acid (lung damage), sodium cyanide (death) and tertiary butylamine (eye and lung irritation, convulsions). Sterling's recent security upgrades--prisonlike watchtowers, security cameras, concrete barricades at all entrances and additional guards--had not kept them out. …