Protecting Chemical Plants from Terrorists: Opposing Views

By Nash, James L. | Occupational Hazards, February 2004 | Go to article overview

Protecting Chemical Plants from Terrorists: Opposing Views


Nash, James L., Occupational Hazards


There are approximately 15,000 chemical facilities that handle large quantities of toxic or flammable substances. How secure is the public from a terrorist attack against one of them?

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More than two years after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 there is widespread concern about the safety of the thousands of chemical plants that must file Risk Management Plans (RMP) with EPA. Press accounts of journalists wandering around unchallenged inside chemical facilities have heightened public anxiety. Legislation to address the issue is currently stalled in Congress.

In two interviews conducted separately, OH asked representatives from industry and from organized labor to assess the current status of chemical plant security. Representing industry is Marty Durbin, team leader of security and operations for the American Chemistry Council (ACC). Mike Wright is director of health, safety and environment for the United Steelworkers of America (USWA), which represents approximately 50,000 workers in the chemical industry.

OH: In addition to the 15,000 plants that must file RMPs, EPA says in a worst-case scenario, 700 plants could place 100,000 people at risk. Is the public safe from a terrorist attack on these facilities?

Durbin: I can't speak to individual facilities. What I can speak to are the requirements ACC members have voluntarily imposed upon their facilities. Security wasn't new to our companies, but after 9/11 we had to enhance the efforts we were making. Our member companies represent approximately 2,000 facilities and about 1,100 of those fall into the RMP category--8 percent of the RMP total.

We don't have final numbers, but I can say anecdotally that our members have spent hundreds of millions of dollars improving their security. In our Responsible Care (RC) security code, we adopted a four-step process. First, the companies prioritized themselves into four tiers, according to the degree of risk. Second, they conducted security vulnerability assessments (SVAs). All ACC members finished this by December of last year.

The methodology they had to use for these assessments was either developed or approved by the Center for Chemical Process Safety (CCPS) and Sandia National Laboratory, a Dept. of Energy national laboratory.

Third, after the SVA, you had to implement a security plan. Finally, you must have a third party come in and verify that you made the physical security enhancements. By now, tier one facilities have implemented their plans. Verification will be done for all facilities by March of next year.

Wright: No, the public and our members are not safe. I think the administration has not addressed the problem at all, nor has the industry. The response has been basically higher fences, more guards and keeping information from the public. They haven't even done a good job on the higher fences and more guards part. Many companies don't belong to ACC. For example, Neville Chemical, the facility featured on "60 Minutes" where investigative reporters walked around with a news camera, used to be part of ACC and RC, but they dropped out several years ago.

But security alone doesn't really help a great deal. If somebody can sit half a mile from a plant with a weapon and take out a chemical tank, you don't need to actually break into the facility. The only real answer is inherently safer technology (IST).

OH: Does the ACC security code cover IST?

Durbin: It includes site security, transportation and cyber security. Concerning the issue of IST, we're always looking at safer ways of producing our products and distributing our products. It's embedded in our mandatory RC program and it's part of our security code as well.

Wright: ACC has talked about IST some, but not nearly to the extent they need to. Even if the chemical industry does this as a voluntary initiative, many chemical companies that are potentially dangerous are not in ACC or RC. …

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