NOW Home Page
Politics & Economy
Science & Health
Arts & Culture
Society & Community
TV Schedule
For Educators
Topic Index
Science and Health:
Formula for Disaster?
More on This Story:

In the nearly four years since 9/11, the U.S. government has failed to upgrade security standards for the nation's chemical plants and refineries—terror targets some say present the greatest possibility of mass casualties. NOW first reported on efforts to safeguard chemical plants and refineries in 2003 in "Homeland Insecurity." On July 15, 2005, NOW extends its investigation to charges of unsafe practices at a large petrochemical plant in Louisiana, examining its history of accidents and the health effects of routine emissions. With chemical plant security legislation stalled in Congress, the report looks at how one refinery near New Orleans could endanger over one million people and explores what steps haven't been taken to make this facility and America's other plants safer. Get details on safety reports, legislation efforts and new refinery technologies below.

According to a report compiled by the Congressional Research Service plants in 23 states that store potentially lethal chemicals are in some of the nation's most populous communities and could each endanger more than 1 million people in a worst-case disaster. The report, which was compiled using Environmental Protection Agency data from May 2005, evaluated plants utilizing large amounts of 140 toxic and flammable chemicals. Newspapers from Maine to Texas highlighted the report, and the potential dangers for their readers.

Top States With Industry Near Large Populations
(State and number of facilities near population ranges)
State 0-999 1,000-9,999 10,000-99,999 100,000-999,999 1 million or more
Texas 466-498 321-432 260-311 59-67 28-29
Illinois 530-630 290-317 60-70 20-25 12-13
California 274-339 230-298 258-294 52-58 11-13
Iowa 476-527 380-395 55-60 3 0
Kansas 493-540 199-217 31-35 4-5 0

(Source: Congressional Research Service analysis. Find out about plants in your state. Read the full report.)

The report became fodder in an ongoing debate over what oversight and safeguards should be put in place in the wake of 9/11. The debate was alive on the floor of Congress on July 14, as members of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs heard testimony from government officials, industry representatives and environmental and public interest groups. Congressman Edward Markey of Massachusetts and others have been advocating stricter federal oversight of chemical plants and refineries since after 9/11 — an effort that some contend has been held back by industry concerns. On July 12, 2005, Jack N. Gerard, president and chief executive of the American Chemistry Council, published an op-ed in USA TODAY highlighting his industry's efforts at self- policing and stating:

[M]ore needs to be done to protect this national asset. Our efforts alone are not enough; we represent a minority of the facilities engaged in the chemistry business. That is why our nation needs meaningful and workable chemical-security legislation to ensure that all companies that make or use chemicals take the mandatory, tough security steps that ACC companies have taken. We know it is rare to hear an industry asking for more government oversight. But make no mistake: We have acted voluntarily, and we also are calling loudly for new legislation granting the Department of Homeland Security authority over chemical industry security.
The next day, Bob Slaughter, National Petrochemical and Refiners Association president, told a Senate committee that "the existing security system put in place by refiners and petrochemical manufacturers is working well." According to industry reporters, "NPRA is concerned that creating new chemical security legislation could negatively impact the industry's relationship with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and other security agencies which allows for informal exchanges vital to maintaining facility security." The final shape of legislation remains to be seen.

One of the most contentious issues in the debate over such regulatory legislation is whether chemical companies and refiners should be required to use less toxic chemicals. Of special concern is hydrofluoric acid, used in the manufacture of gasoline among other consumer products. A less toxic version of HF, known as modified HF and sold under the brand name ReVaP, is available. It is currently being used at the Woods Cross Refinery near Salt Lake City, owned by the Holly Corporation (and previously owned by Phillips Petroleum, now ConocoPhillips) and at the ExxonMobil refinery in Torrance, California. The technology is also being implemented at the Valero refinery in Wilmington, California and scheduled to go online in 2006. The safest version of HF, called solid acid catalyst, is commercially available now, but is being tested only by a few refineries in Europe.

Homeland safety issues don't end with safer chemical plants — America's ports and food supply are just many of the highly valuable parts of American society that critics worry are still vulnerable. Get more information on all these issues from our resource links and find out more about some of the chemicals tracked in the Congressional Research Service report.

Additional sources: "Chemical Security Gaps," BANGOR DAILY NEWS, July 12 2005; "Study: Plants Storing Lethal Chemicals," Lara Jakes Jordan. The Associated Press, July 6, 2005; "Chief of Homeland Security Announces Sweeping Overhaul," By THE NEW YORK TIMES, July 13, 2005; "Thinking like terrorists ; Chemical plants are too easy a target," The Record, July 11, 2005; "NPRA: Do no harm," Primedia Insight, July 13, 2005; "Security oversight is critical," USA TODAY, Jack N. Gerard, July 12, 2005; "Concern over plant security," DINA CAPPIELLO, HOUSTON CHRONICLE, July 7, 2005.

Related Stories:

about feedback pledge © Public Affairs Television. All rights reserved.
go to the full archive