Fall/ Winter 2001

• Julia Reynolds

The Threat Next Door
Chemical lobbies, the terrorist threat and your right to know



Are Silicon Valley companies potential terrorist targets? Congress and the country's chemical lobbyists think so. They just don’t want you to know about it.

A 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

Now 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 world’s 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 did there.”

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 weren’t 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 targets.”

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 1998’s, 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 elsewhere.

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 they’d 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 plant’s 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 interpreting it."

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 there’s a wild idea. One communities might want to take more seriously today.

Sources: Center for Responsive Politics, Environmental Protection Agency, Federal Congressional Record

© 2002 El Andar Magazine


Silicon Shame Series

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