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Lax security exposes lethal chemical supplies

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Source: Pittsburgh Live

Note that the ATSDR found that much needs to be done to decrease the risks at chemical plants (this report was taken offline after 911 yet it provides no specific information on any chemical facilities that could aid would-be terrorists), that EPA is cutting back on enforcement and that Congress may Eliminate the Chemical Safety Board.

Source: Pittsburgh Live.

See Also:
Toxins often vulnerable during transit.
Regulators, industry try to seal disaster plans.
Bill would help neighbors breathe easier.

Note: Be sure to check out the toxic tour.

Lax security exposes lethal chemical supplies

By Carl Prine
TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Sunday, April 7, 2002

Despite repeated warnings from federal intelligence agencies to keep intruders away from tanks holding lethal chemicals, a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review investigation shows that six months after the Sept. 11 attacks, anyone has unfettered access to more than two dozen potentially dangerous plants in the region.

The security was so lax at 30 sites that in broad daylight a Trib reporter — wearing a press pass and carrying a camera — could walk or drive right up to tanks, pipes and control rooms considered key targets for terrorists.

A derailed train, a .50-caliber bullet or a pipe bomb: Each could turn a local neighborhood into an industrial disaster area, based on paperwork filed with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency by the chemical manufacturers, shippers and users themselves.

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The Trib's investigation of the 30 sites found:

  • Absent, dilapidated or unfinished fence lines or carelessly opened gates allowing access to 18 sites, including the James Austin factory in Mars, the Nitrochem plant in Newell and the Laroche Industries warehouse in Donora. At the Bethel Park–South Park Treatment Plant, a worker buzzed the reporter in without asking who he was.

  • Unguarded rail lines, docks and river walls. Twelve operating rail tracks led right up to millions of pounds of toxic and explosive chemicals at plants throughout the region, including LTV Steel's Aliquippa mill, Allegheny Ludlum's Brackenridge site and Vopak's large warehouse in Forward Township.

  • Thousands of loaded, unguarded rail tankers, semitrailer trucks and barges transporting chemicals to the area's plants, sometimes parked near homes, schools and churches. Once inside the plants, no worker, supervisor or security guard stopped the reporter from going wherever he wanted, even into control rooms and up to tanks and train switching and derailing levers.

Of the 123 plants nationwide that individually endanger more than 1 million people, two are in western Pennsylvania: Nitrochem and Vopak. The Trib reporter spent more than an hour walking through each without encountering a single guard or employee. At Vopak, he even sat on the chemical tanks. Both companies promise to improve security.

The Trib's foray into what federal regulators call America's "soft underbelly" in its war on terrorism followed stern warnings from government agencies to shore up security at chemical sites nationwide. These 30 companies — more than half of the 61 sites in the region required to file "worst-case scenario" plans with the EPA — have been notified directly by government regulators to guard against attacks capable of killing masses of unsuspecting residents. Their 60 zones of damage cover many neighborhoods in Allegheny, Beaver, Butler, Fayette, Washington and Westmoreland counties.

WAKE-UP CALL

Former Gov. Tom Ridge, now director of the White House Office of Homeland Security, did not respond to the Trib's findings. But when told of the Trib's security tests, Gov. Mark Schweiker called on local chemical companies to "take it very seriously."

"We had a provocative wake-up call on Sept. 11, and you would hope they'd be about the business of being more thorough and more vigilant," Schweiker said.

The governor's comments mirrored federal efforts to safeguard America's most deadly chemical stockpiles.

"We're asking all chemical manufacturers to be especially vigilant," Marianne Lamont Horinko, an EPA assistant administrator, said during an address to the industry in January. "These threats aren't going away. These threats are here to stay."

To drive Horinko's point home, EPA and Department of Defense agents have planted fake bombs under chemical rail cars and set up phony companies to order deadly gases, largely unchallenged. But only one of the sites the Trib visited — the tiny New Kensington Municipal Sewage Treatment Plant — likely would have foiled the test bombers. Twice guards and workers at the sewage plant turned away a stranger.

The rest remained blithely unaware of strangers on their grounds, walking through their buildings and up to their tanks.

"I'm disappointed," said David Smith, director of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency. "I'll tell you that straight out — I'm disappointed there are still facilities out there that are not more aggressively taking on security."

Local emergency planners echoed Smith's assessment.

"It doesn't surprise me, but hearing the scope of it, well, it concerns me," said Bob Full, Allegheny County's emergency management director. "I hoped they'd have had their houses in order by now."

They've had about a year to prepare. Last April, a U.S. Department of Justice study concluded that terrorists posed a "clear and credible threat" of causing an industrial chemical release.

"What terrorist wouldn't want to hit this industry?" said Dean Blauser, a hazardous-materials specialist in Grand Haven, Mich. He's often summoned from his HazCom Solutions lab to contain Midwestern chemical disasters.

"They don't want to advertise the fact that security is so bad. Before 9/11, did the air industry want to advertise that someone could hijack a jet?

"It's not that chemical companies are bad neighbors. They definitely are concerned about hazards to their employees and their communities. But the fact remains that you could walk into all those plants, and no one stopped you."

Of all the factories the Trib visited, the friendliest employees were at Allegheny Ludlum's Brackenridge Plant. There, millworkers tipped their hats to the reporter as he wandered behind a locomotive, past a company safety truck and toward 100,000 pounds of acid that, if released, could kill, injure, trap or displace 16,000 people living within about a mile of the steel plant, according to papers filed by Ludlum with the federal government.

"My first reaction is, well, I'm surprised," said Dan Greenfield, an Allegheny Ludlum spokesman. "We have a very capable security force at the plant. They're aware of what we're trying to do. From a corporate perspective, security is held at a very high level, and it has intensified since Sept. 11.

"We've got to consider what you did."

NEIGHBORHOOD DANGERS

At the Bethel Park–South Park Sewage Treatment Plant, a worker buzzed the reporter in — even though he didn't ask to enter — and three employees later acknowledged seeing him walking around the site but not stopping him. The plant stores at least a ton of chlorine gas at any given time, enough poison to reach nearly a mile and threaten 3,200 neighbors. Used as a weapon in World War I, industrial chlorine is so corrosive it will eat through human teeth.

"The day you came in, they were finishing installing the gate," explained the plant supervisor, Scott Dunn. "You definitely can't get in there now."

That didn't reassure nearby South Park residents who have been fighting to move the plant — mostly owned by Bethel Park — for two years. They contend that Bethel Park residents would never tolerate the dangers their South Park neighbors face every day. They demand to know why they weren't told about the chlorine tanks before buying homes next to the site. They want the municipality to close the plant it has run for four decades, or at least solve the odor problems and find a safer alternative to chlorine gas used by other nearby facilities, including the city of Pittsburgh.

"I'm a scientist, and I've told them about my concerns about health and safety there, especially since the odors have gotten worse in the past year," said Diane Lenhart, a mother who has filed complaints against the site with state environmental regulators and the Allegheny County Health Department.

"We're concerned about the health of our children, and no one ever told us about chlorine. We get absolutely no information whatsoever."

The Trib was able to enter the grounds of 13 other local sites that store large quantities of chlorine, including water and sewage treatment plants in Verona, McKeesport, Cheswick, Oakmont, Washington, Beaver Falls and Hampton Township.

At other major chlorine users and shippers — including Butler's AK Steel, LTV's Aliquippa Works and the James Austin factory in Mars — no one detected the reporter walking up to tanks capable of injuring tens of thousands of people. During a Sunday morning visit, he sat on the tanks, rail cars and chemical crates at Forward Township's Vopak plant. According to EPA paperwork filed by the company, a rupture there could affect more than a million people living within 25 miles, including most of Pittsburgh.

Interviews with more than 100 neighbors of similar plants across western Pennsylvania revealed that those most likely to die in a chemical release didn't know tons of toxins or explosives were stored nearby. Most had no idea what they should do in the event of a release. Fewer still had ever spoken to the plant supervisors about what safety or security changes they had made since Sept. 11.

"I had no idea," said James Kupec, a father living near Cranberry Township's Alliant Foodservices factory and its 6,200 pounds of anhydrous ammonia. "I don't think it would be too much to ask, though, that they tell us about what's down there. It doesn't mean we wouldn't choose to live here, but we deserve to know."

If released in large quantities, anhydrous ammonia — a common refrigerant and fertilizer — can freeze-burn or suffocate neighbors. Because water absorbs the gas, anhydrous ammonia seeks out moist eyeballs, wet lung tissue and mouths, impairing victims’ ability to escape and seek help.

The Trib entered the grounds of six factories with large caches of this toxin, including Neville Island's Calgon Carbon and Donora's Laroche Industries — and wasn't asked to leave any of them. At Laroche, the reporter walked through the warehouse and past giant outdoor chemical tubs, then leaned against tanks propped near a dilapidated and unguarded fenceline. With nearly 200,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia on-site, ruptures of Laroche's tanks, rail cars or tanker trucks put 58,000 people in a six-mile radius at risk.

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection now requires security plans for the more than 2,000 sites that apply for waste-discharge permits. Most warehouses like Laroche's, however, fall outside the regulations because they don't discharge dangerous substances through smokestacks or treated water. Local emergency planners are hoping to close the loophole by working with companies that don't request permits.

When contacted, many chemical manufacturers, shippers and users claimed to have bolstered security in recent years, a trend that gained speed after the Sept. 11 attacks. Every site manager contacted by the Trib insisted safety and security were priorities, and several made immediate changes in procedures or construction plans once alerted to breaches by the newspaper.

STRUGGLING WITH SECURITY

Chemical trade groups nationally and in Pennsylvania also have hosted several security seminars, often drawing thousands of participants. Shortly after Sept. 11, a consortium of industry groups distributed a lengthy guide to improving security at every plant. Chemical industry organizers still say security improvements should be voluntary, not mandated by state or federal authorities.

"There isn't one company that hasn't looked at putting in plans to enhance what they already have," said Pam Witmer, president of the Pennsylvania Chemical Industry Council. "And all of this can't be done overnight. There will be varying degrees of progress."

Progress isn't cheap. At U.S. Steel, for example, a lockdown at the Clairton Works on Sept. 11 led to vehicle searches, heightened patrols and penetrating audits into weaknesses in perimeter security. The steel titan spends more than $1 million annually to equip, train and hire its own hazardous chemicals response team, firefighters, paramedics and gate guards at the coke factory. But when told how the reporter entered the plant — twice — U.S. Steel's corporate security administrator sighed.

"I knew exactly how you did it," said Craig Edwards, a former chief of Pittsburgh detectives. "I could've told you that before you said anything. Those are areas we're working to secure, and we have made great progress doing just that."

U.S. Steel hires detectives to ferret out former and present employees who may pose security risks. It routinely patrols its rail yards and tug lines and audits security measures, and it has revamped safety instruments that automatically contain chemical releases.

But even the mammoth steel maker wonders if it can find the money to restring barbed wire, close miles of open rail gaps and better protect its workers and Clairton residents.

"You look at the economic times, and we're suffering in the steel industry," said Carl Masters, the Clairton Works' longtime security and safety chief. "There are some things we must put off until we improve financially. We have increased patrols inside and outside the plant. We have tried to stress to employees to be vigilant. But there is only so much we can do now."

What irks Masters most is that at least nine plant and railroad workers spotted the reporter as he canvassed the site, including one vehicle patrol. Out of uniform, with press passes dangling from his neck and a camera in his hand, he was still able to walk behind security guards and up to hundreds of thousands of pounds of anhydrous ammonia — twice.

"On 9/11, the employees were very cooperative," Masters said. "They helped out when we checked their cars and increased security. Everyone pitched in. But that was six months ago, and people are starting to forget."

Carl Prine can be reached at cprine@tribweb.com or (412) 320-7826.

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