Congress is poised to try to pass a law regulating security in and around chemical and petrochemical plants, which security experts say are among the most potentially deadly terrorist targets in the nation.
Many of these industrial sites are situated in densely populated areas. The Department of Homeland Security has identified almost 300 plants where there could be more than 50,000 casualties in the event of a catastrophic release of hazardous materials.
"Legislation is very badly needed," says Michael Greenberger, director of the University of Maryland's Center for Health and Homeland Security in Baltimore. "This has been left to self-regulation, which is self-evidently constricted by the fact that the plants don't want to spend any more money than they have to."
In the aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon four years ago, the chemical industry voluntarily spent tens of millions of dollars to increase security at plants. It increased the height and number of fences and installed new security cameras and barriers to keep out intruders.
But security experts, local law-enforcement officers, and local emergency planners have consistently warned that many of those plants still are not properly secured against a terrorist attack. They've been urging Congress to pass minimum security standards at the least. But the chemical industry, backed by Republicans in Congress, has stymied efforts to date, arguing that it is successfully self-regulating and that federal interference would amount to "micromanaging."
Last spring, however, the Department of Homeland Security bucked other Bush officials and came out in favor of federal regulation of chemical plant security. By the summer, representatives of most of the nation's chemical plants had switched positions, acknowledging that basic security standards are needed to ensure that "bad actors" within the industry are brought into compliance.
"That's why we're working to get national legislation enacted," says Marty Durban, managing director for security and operation at the American Chemistry Council (ACC), the industry's main lobbying organization, in Arlington, Va.
This week, Sen. Susan Collins (R) of Maine is expected to introduce a compromise bill that has the ACC backing. It would require America's 15,000 plants that use hazardous chemicals to undertake safety assessments and allow the Department of Homeland Security to set minimum standards based on the risk presented by each plant. If plants don't comply, the government can shut them down.
Still, some terrorism experts and environmentalists contend the bill is a sham because the legislation doesn't include a provision that would require chemical companies to use safer alternatives wherever possible. The provision, called "inherently safer technologies," was a centerpiece of previous chemical security legislation. In addition, because the Collins bill would preempt state action on chemical plant security, it would override a New Jersey law - the only one in the country - that requires 43 of the most dangerous plants to use inherently safer technologies where possible.
"All [a provision for inherently safer technologies] asks industry to do is to put enough good-faith effort and planning to look for safer alternatives wherever possible," says Meghan Purvis, environmental health advocate for US Public Interest Research Group in Washington. "Industry has said they've done that already ... but time and time again we find bad actors out there that are using known dangerous technologies when there are safer, viable alternatives."
One plant Ms. Purvis and other environmentalists point to is the 1,000-acre Sunoco refinery in South Philadelphia. It also provides a good illustration of the debate about inherently safer technology.
Among the smokestacks and flares, the plant stores oil and gas, as well as almost 400,000 gallons of hydrogen fluoride (HF), a highly toxic chemical used to increase the octane in gasoline. If released into the air, the liquid turns into a heavy, low-lying gas - a process called aerosoling - that experts say has the potential to cause hundreds of thousands of casualties in the Philadelphia area.
Local community activists, such as Joanne Rossi, say that HF poses is an unnecessary risk, because a modified version of the chemical is now available that will not turn into a gas if released.
"It's relatively cheap to switch and could maybe save the lives of millions of people," says Ms. Rossi, president of the Community/Labor Refinery Tracking Committee in South Philadelphia. "It's ludicrous that they haven't switched yet."
According to a study by the US Public Interest Research Group in 2003, there are 148 refineries in the country. Only 50 of them now use HF - half the number that used it a decade ago. The others have switched to safer alternatives like sulfuric acid or the modified HF that doesn't turn into a gas.
A Sunoco spokesman said company officials studied the alternatives but have decided that they aren't "considered proven and viable options."
"The company regularly assesses new and emerging technologies to determine their applicability at our plant, including at the HF unit," says Gerald Davis, Sunoco's corporate media manager. "Over the years, we've incorporated many improvements to our HF units to further reduce the remote risk of an incident."
If Congress passed a law mandating companies to study and adopt inherently safer technologies, chemical-industry advocates argue it could force a company like Sunoco to act before it's ready. "That's micromanaging," says Lou Hayden, senior policy analyst at the American Petroleum Institute in Washington. "[Modified HF] sounds promising, but each plant is different and each decision is made refinery by refinery. These processes are not substitutable."
But community activists like Rossi note that if Congress passed a law mandating companies to use safer alternatives, it would give people in the neighborhood another tactic to use to make their communities more secure.
In the meantime, they've started a petition drive in the neighborhood that urges the company to switch voluntarily. They're garnering plenty of support.
"Everybody's raising their children around here. There are lots and lots of babies around here," says Rochelle Worshan, who is painting a chain-link fence just a block away from the Sunoco refinery. "They should do everything they can to make it safer."