Silicon Valley companies potential terrorist targets? Congress and the country's
chemical lobbyists think so. They just dont want you to know about
recent explosion at this high-tech supply plant in Newark, California,
sent gas tanks shooting through the roof like rockets. Four people
were injured on the ground. Photo,
Paul Myers, El Andar
that passenger planes have been used as missiles, and ordinary envelopes
can contain toxic bacteria, we have learned that the objects of our daily
lives can be turned in a heartbeat into deadly weapons.
In 1999, the Senate and House debated whether the nation's chemical facilities
might become targets for terrorists and could, in essence, be transformed
into massive toxic bombs conveniently planted in and near our largest
cities. Of course, this was back when such talk was seen by many as a
remote threat, and the debate garnered few headlines.
What brought this discussion to Capitol Hill in the first place? After
the worlds largest chemical accident killed thousands in Bhopal,
India, Congress passed the 1986 Emergency Planning and Community Right-To-Know
Act. The law mandated that information on industrial dangers be made available
to the public and to emergency planners.
Since the Right-to-Know Act passed, more than fifty chemical disasters
have caused death and injuries in the United States. In early 1999, a
Concept Sciences, Inc. plant exploded in Pennsylvania, killing five people,
injuring fourteen and hitting a nursery school that had just let out for
the day. Rescuers spent seven hours searching rubble for bodies, and a
thousand homes were left without power in the cold of winter. One parent
told reporters, We need to know. Obviously, no one knew what they
Authorities said the explosion came from a chemical used to etch computer
semiconductors, and just one month before the blast one chemist wrote
this chilling entry in his lab notebook: "KABOOM! The distillation
from [sample] 005-77 exploded. ... Thank God no one got hurt."
By June 21 of the same year, 66,000 companies nationwide were required
to file Risk Management Plans with the EPA. These plans described
the worst case scenarios for catastrophic chemical accidents. Each company
also prepared a more likely, or typical, scenario. Congress
and the EPA werent really thinking about terrorism rather,
accidents due to human error, power outages, earthquakes or plain bad
luck. But when the data was finally ready to appear on the Internet in
the summer of 1999, Republican politicians were up in arms. They drafted
legislation to limit dissemination of the data. The reason? Publishing
the scenarios, they explained, might encourage terrorist attacks.
At the time, many environmentalists negated the terror threat most
of the information, they argued, could easily be obtained from other sources
and they pointed out that it wasn't just the FBI testifying to
keep the information from the public it was also the chemical companies.
Representatives of the Chemical Manufacturers Association (CMA), a powerful
lobbying group (now re-named a more academic-sounding American Chemistry
Council), testified repeatedly to Congress. As you know, worst case
scenario data provide a graphic depiction of the worst possible incident
that could happen at a manufacturing facility, CMA lawyer Tom Susman
told the House. This data will assist terrorists in choosing their
Besides offering its opinion, CMA contributed more than $26,000 in soft
money that summer to the Republican National Congressional Committee.
In the 2000 election cycle, political contributions from chemical and
related manufacturing were nearly double 1998s, and 81 percent
a total of $9 million went to Republican candidates. In the end,
it was the Republican majority in Congress who passed the bill that would
allow the public only limited access to this information.
By August of 1999, President Clinton grudgingly signed the Chemical Safety
Information, Site Security and Fuels Regulatory Relief Act, which made
it illegal for the EPA to publish the specifics of the risk management
plans on the Internet.
Internal memos from the EPA indicate that its own committee assigned to
study the right-to-know issue found that professional terrorists
were not the real threat they could easily find much of the information
Instead, their worry concerned amateur copycat terrorists
the average psychos who might get a wild idea to bomb a chemical
plant if the scenarios were found on the Web.
That threat may not be as far-fetched as it first sounds. Two Elk Grove,
California, men associated with the paramilitary group Republic of Texas
were accused by the FBI of plotting a bomb attack on two propane tanks
that could have decimated a five-mile residential area along state highway
99. The FBI says its surveillance foiled the Y2K plot, and a mistrial
was declared in November, but prosecutors plan to continue the case.
Now, after September 11, a confused country is not sure how to handle
important but sensitive safety information. In late October, the EPA panicked
and pulled even the basic summaries it had on these chemical plants from
its Web site, citing security concerns. As of press time, residents living
or working in affected areas can still go to an EPA reading room and read
the reports, but the process is difficult and time-consuming (see resources).
Our right to know raises some hefty questions. It's like asking your doctor
whether you have the gene for Alzheimer's. Do you want to know or not?
Do you want others to know what you know?
And that's where the problem lies: if we try to keep information out of
the hands of terrorists, we will have to also keep it from ourselves.
When El Andar informally interviewed residents of Silicon Valley, most
said theyd rather know about chemical hazards in their neighborhoods.
All of us agree on the need to take all reasonable measures to protect
our citizens from terrorism, Senator Frank R. Lautenberg (D-NJ)
told the Senate back in 1999. At the same time, it's important to
have programs such as right-to-know that help reduce public risks from
very real and dangerous chemical accidents.
Now, post-September 11, we face even greater barriers to finding information.
But two years ago, Lautenberg and environmentalists suggested a more basic
approach: instead of keeping information from the public, why not start
by putting tighter controls on the use of dangerous chemicals? After all,
in Silicon Valley, security at software or dot-com firms is often far
tighter than it is at hazardous chemical facilities.
A US Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) report titled
Industrial Chemicals And Terrorism describes a study of two
communities and their preparedness for a chemical sabotage attack. Although
routine security measures at government buildings and abortion clinics
were excellent, security at chemical plants ranged from fair to very poor,
the report concluded. Most security gaps were the result of complacency
and lack of awareness of the threat.
Chemical plant security managers
were very pessimistic about their ability to deter sabotage by employees,
yet none of them had implemented simple background checks for key employees
such as chemical process operators.
Security around chemical transportation
assets ranged from poor to non-existent.
As things stand now, enforcing existing rules is difficult. Last year,
Irl "Chip" Ward, the CEO of the Pennsylvania plant that exploded
was indicted on criminal charges of willfully violating warnings that
his plants chip-making process was unsafe. Authorities say that
staff had urged him to shut down the plant on the day of the deadly 1999
explosion, but Ward ignored the warning and left for a sales trip to Europe.
And he was acquitted weeks after the September 11 attacks, when a judge
ruled that laws regarding use of hazardous chemicals are "so ambiguous
it would be grossly unjust to permit Ward to be prosecuted for the willful
violation of the [regulation] when even [federal] personnel had difficulty
Which makes the case stronger for revisiting hazardous material regulations.
We might want to propose measures to improve site security at these
chemical plants, said Senator Lautenberg, or to even ban the
most hazardous chemical operations from residential areas and schools.
Now theres a wild idea. One communities might want to take more
Sources: Center for Responsive Politics, Environmental Protection
Agency, Federal Congressional Record.
© 2002 El Andar Magazine