Analysis: Even if chemical plants are more secure, transportation of chemicals will not be

Published 27 March 2006

Congress and the administration are inching — the more accurate word would be “millimetering” — toward formulating safety standards for U.S. chemical facilities; trouble is, even if security is enhanced at these facilities, the transportation of deadly chemicals will remain frighteningly vulnerable to attack

Since the 9/11 attacks, growing public concern about a terrorist strike — or an accident — at one of the 15,000 U.S. chemical plants, and growing impatience with the chemical industry’s laissez faire attitude to the subject of security, have caused federal and local officials to move toward imposing tighter safeguards at manufacturing and processing plants. Last week DHS secretary Michael Chertoff”said he would ask Congress to adopt a series of chemical plant security measures which have largely been endorsed by the industry.

There is a catch here, though: Even if the chemical plants are secure, the public would be left vulnerable by the railways running in and out of many of them. The railways transport more than 1.7 million shipments of hazardous materials every year, including 100,000 tank cars filled with toxic gases such as chlorine and anhydrous ammonia. According to a recent study by the Navy, an accident or terrorist attack involving a single car of chlorine near a densely populated area could kill as many as 100,000 people.

Since 9/11, railroads have spent millions to install fences and security cameras and add additional officers around the state, but industry officials concede that their facilities are far too large to be completely sealed. Leaders of railroad workers’ unions say it is not uncommon for tanker cars to be left unattended for days, and that security along the rails is frighteningly inadequate. The sight of graffiti-covered tank cars filled with deadly gases is a reminder of the holes in the security system.

State and local officials say they are limited in what they can do to regulate the thousands of tank cars of deadly gases hauled around New Jersey each year. In other cities and states, proposals to re-route dangerous chemicals away from major population centers, most notably in Washington, D.C., have faced fierce opposition and legal challenges from both the railroads and local communities where the chemicals would be re-routed. The courts have also upheld the railroads’ assertion that only the federal government can regulate rail traffic.