In December 1984, nearly 3,800 people were killed in Bhopal, India, after a cloud of methyl isocyanate was released from a Union Carbide plant. Another 200,000 people suffered from chemical exposure. In America, there are 123 chemical plants that could each expose more than a million people to deadly chemicals in the case of a terrorist attack or accident, and 750 additional facilities could endanger thousands more. Yet, despite the risks, the federal government has not imposed mandatory security standards for the chemical industry. Security at chemical industries is voluntary, much like security was for commercial airlines before 9/11.
Seven weeks after 9/11, New Jersey senator Jon Corzine introduced the Chemical Security Act, which would have required the nation's chemical facilities to develop a plan to reduce their vulnerability to terrorist attacks. Facilities that the Environmental Protection Agency deemed "high priority" would have been required to cut back on the amount of hazardous chemicals stored on-site or to switch to less harmful chemicals.
The bill was intensely lobbied against by the American Chemistry Council (ACC), an industry group representing 7 percent of the country's 15,000 chemical facilities. The bill stalled, then was re-introduced with the Department of Homeland Security replacing the EPA in a regulatory role, and then stalled again. A frustrated Corzine said that the ACC was more concerned with private interests than national security.
Robert Kennedy's book Crimes Against Nature points out that the ACC's lead attorney, James Conrad, served on Bush's EPA transition team, and Fred Webber, the ACC's former president, is one of Bush's old friends from Texas. Common Cause, a nonpartisan organization working to abolish special interests in government, identified the ACC as a Bush campaign contributor.
Overall, the ACC contends that chemical plants don't need federal intervention for chemical plant security. But local activists don't agree.
"If the Bush administration is going to be serious about Homeland Security, they need to put more money and teeth into some rules to force chemical plants to protect the citizens who live around them," says James Baker of the Memphis chapter of the Sierra Club. Baker is involved in the Safe Hometowns Initiative, a grassroots cooperative of environmental groups concerned about the threat of terrorist groups attacking chemical industries.
In Memphis, there are 20 chemical facilities that are required to submit Risk Management Plans (RMPs) to the EPA, as well as to the local Emergency Management Agency (EMA). Companies that store a significant quantity of hazardous chemicals are required to submit plans that include a worst-case scenario in the event of a major chemical release. According to Baker, these are the plants Memphians need to worry about.
Companies are required to submit RMPs every five years. The previous deadline for plans was 1999, so facilities were required to submit updated plans this year. Joe Lowry, local planning officer for the EMA, said he would not release the plans to the media.
In 1999, plans were released, and they are still available for viewing at the Right-to-Know Network's Web site, Rtknet.org. According the 1999 plan posted by Vertex, a chemical plant on Presidents Island that handles large amounts of chlorine, an accident with a 90-ton rail car transporting chlorine to their site could release 180,000 pounds of chlorine into the air, spanning 25 miles.
"Most of the time, the wind in Memphis blows from the southwest to the northeast, so if you have something on Presidents Island, that's going to blow up through the middle of town," says Baker. "With a place like Velsicol [Chemical], which also handles [chlorine], no matter where the wind comes from, the plant is surrounded by communities."
The larger problem is that while plants are required to submit emergency plans, there are no uniform federal security requirements. Butch Pennington, of the Local Emergency Planning Committee, says the EPA asked chemical plants in its most recent RMP request to reduce the amounts of harmful chemicals or to switch to less hazardous chemicals. But facilities were not required to make the changes. Had Corzine's bill passed, changes would have been mandatory.
Lowry says the EMA has "a pretty good handle on the situation." He says he studies each plan to ensure that it will work. If he's not satisfied, he sends the plan back for revision. In the event of a chemical release, sirens throughout the city would alert the public to switch on their televisions or radios for further instructions. Lowry says large amounts of chemicals transported through the city represent Memphis' biggest problems.
For instance, Memphis' two Mississippi River bridges are used by more than 80,000 trucks and vehicles carrying products every day, Lowry says.
"We run more trains through Memphis than Nashville, Knoxville, or Chatanooga. We also have chemical pipelines running through the city," says Lowry. "From a HAZMAT standpoint, there's a lot of potential in Memphis." •