Chemical Plants Remain Vulnerable to Terrorists: A Call to Action

By Lippin, Tobi Mae; McQuiston, Thomas H. et al. | Environmental Health Perspectives, September 2006 | Go to article overview

Chemical Plants Remain Vulnerable to Terrorists: A Call to Action


Lippin, Tobi Mae, McQuiston, Thomas H., Bradley-Bull, Kristin, Burns-Johnson, Toshiba, Cook, Linda, Gill, Michael L., Howard, Donna, Seymour, Thomas A., Stephens, Doug, Williams, Brian K., Environmental Health Perspectives


U.S. chemical plants currently have potentially catastrophic vulnerabilities as terrorist targets. The possible consequences of these vulnerabilities echo from the tragedies of the Bhopal incident in 1984 to the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001 and, most recently, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Findings from a 2004 nationwide participatory research study of 125 local union leaders at sites with very large volumes of highly hazardous chemicals suggest that voluntary efforts to achieve chemical plant security are not succeeding. Study respondents reported that companies had only infrequently taken actions that are most effective in preventing or in preparing to respond to a terrorist threat. In addition, companies reportedly often failed to involve key stakeholders, including workers, local unions, and the surrounding communities, in these efforts. The environmental health community thus has an opportunity to play a key role in advocating for and supporting improvements in prevention of and preparation for terrorist attacks. Policy-level recommendations to redress chemical site vulnerabilities and the related ongoing threats to the nation's security are as follows: a) specify detailed requirements for chemical site assessment and security; b) mandate audit inspections supported by significant penalties for cases of noncompliance; c) require progress toward achieving inherently safer processes, including the minimizing of storage of highly hazardous chemicals; d) examine and require additional effective actions in prevention, emergency preparedness, and response and remediation; e) mandate and fund the upgrading of emergency communication systems; and f) involve workers and community members in plan creation and equip and prepare them to prevent and respond effectively to an incident. Key words: antiterrorism, chemical plant security, emergency response, hazardous materials, prevention. Environ Health Perspect 114:1307-1311 (2006). doi:10.1289/ehp.8762 available via http://dx.doi.org/[Online 27 April 2006]

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The nation's chemical infrastructure is at risk of terrorist attack (U.S. Department of Justice 2000). The vulnerabilities of chemical-related industries, although recognized before 11 September 2001, became dramatically more pressing that day after terrorists demonstrated the capacity for catastrophic strikes against key U.S. targets. In 2003, the Homeland Security Advisory System issued alerts that identified the U.S. nuclear and chemical manufacturing infrastructure as potential terrorist targets (National Infrastructure Protection Center 2003a, 2003b). That same year, the General Accounting Office [now the Government Accountability Office (GAO)] identified chemical facilities as potentially attractive targets threatening nearby population centers (GAO 2003a). The GAO linked these potential vulnerabilities to more than 15,000 sites across the United States identified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as Risk Management Program (RMP) sites with large volumes of highly hazardous chemicals.

The GAO (2003a) showed that 123 chemical facilities have worst-case scenarios involving more than a million people in the surrounding area at risk of exposure to a cloud of toxic gas if a release occurred. Estimates show that 700 sites could put 100,000 people at risk, and approximately 3,000 sites could put 10,000 people at risk.

RMP worst-case estimates, although valuable, have limitations for assessing the possible consequences of attacks on chemical facilities. First, releases caused by intentional acts may differ in size, scope, and severity from accidental releases from a single vessel or process line (Belke 2000; GAO 2003a). Second, RMP consequence analyses involve off-site communities rather than on-site populations. Third, people estimated to be directly affected by a toxic release would be limited to those in the path of the toxic plume, not necessarily the entire population within a theoretical zone of vulnerability. …

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