Welcome to NOW...on the road just south of New Orleans in Chalmette, Louisiana.
The deadly bombings in London last week are a reminder that terrorists are still able to find and attack us at our weak points. Here in Chalmette, the concern is that plant behind me, where an attack could prove much deadlier than the ones in London.
That's a gasoline refinery back there. It uses some truly nasty chemicals including at least one that could kill you almost instantly in inhaled. If there ever were a terrorist attack here, or even a bad accident, the lives of over a million people could be endangered. Just days ago, the government updated its list of over 100 such sites across the country.
Here in Chalmette, a citizen's group has been fighting to make the plant safer, but they say they've run up against both big money and big politics.
Bryan Myers produced our report.
Finding a petrochemical plant in Louisiana does not take much detective work. Drive a little. Plants like these are the life blood of Louisiana's economy. Almost 100,000 people statewide depend on the petrochemical industry for their jobs.
Debbie Ruiz lives here in Chalmette, right by the huge towers that convert crude oil into products like gasoline, kerosene, and jet fuel. While some of her neighbors may look at these towers and see jobs, she sees danger. Refineries often use huge amounts of toxic chemicals-chemicals that could endanger the entire community if they ever escaped.
DEBBIE RUIZ, CHALMETTE RESIDENT: I worry about it because it could happen at any time. You know, it could be any time of day, any moment. It could happen at this moment and you would never know.
BRANCACCIO: But it's not just people like Ruiz who worry about some sort of catastrophe. Unlike other industries that use deadly material, like nuclear power plants, there are few government standards for security at refineries. In Chalmette, like everywhere else in America, these facilities are left largely to their own devices when it comes to security.
A report released by the Army after 9/11 says a terrorist attack on a chemical plant could cause fatalities second only to a biological attack. And recently, a former Homeland Security advisor to President Bush had this to say:
RICHARD FALKENRATH (April 27, 2005): When you look at all of the different targets that could be attacked in the United States, and there are many, and ask yourself, which ones present the greatest possibility of mass casualties and are the least well-secured at the present time, one target that flies off the pages and that is chemicals.
BRANCACCIO: Up until last year, Richard Falkenrath was an aide to President Bush. He's now urging Congress to mandate security standards for America's chemical plants and refineries, saying he can't keep silent any longer.
RICHARD FALKENRATH: There is a pressing need for a legislative solution to this problem and in particular, a new regulatory regime for chemical security. I believe the regime should be very strict.
BRANCACCIO: In the nearly four years since 9/11, Congress has failed to set such standards. But it's not because some haven't tried. In the months following 9/11, a group of Senators both Republicans and Democrats proposed an ambitious homeland security bill for the chemical industry. But that bill has gone nowhere &3151; the victim, critics say, of aggressive lobbying and White House ties to the oil industry.
KEN FORD, CHALMETTE RESIDENT: This is a map, a satellite map…
BRANCACCIO: With Congress failing to act, some in Chalmette are taking matters into their own hands.
KEN FORD: This is where we are right now, this is my residence, and this is the refinery right here.
BRANCACCIO: Ken Ford lives less than a quarter mile from a refinery operated by the world's most profitable oil company the ExxonMobil Corporation.
KEN FORD: When they have activities going on for the school, they'll be a couple hundred students here, families.
BRANCACCIO: Ken Ford's been working a long time to make Chalmette safer. Nearly 15 years ago, Ford set out to investigate the long-term health effects of the routine emissions from the refinery. So he decided to form a group of concerned citizens. Chalmette's been called "Cancer Alley" because of all the sickness. Ford himself has lost a lung to cancer.
We recently spoke with Ford and two other members of his group, Joy and Johnny Lewis, also cancer survivors.
JOHNNY LEWIS, CHALMETTE RESIDENT: Any time the air is coming from the refineries over your home, it's terrible, you know? Sometimes you see a plume of black smoke, uh, you smell terrible odors. It just feels that-sometimes it's so bad, sir, one night, I was here, I could, I could almost taste it and chew it. That's how bad the smell was in the air.
BRANCACCIO: Attorneys for the refinery have said people like Johnny can't prove they've gotten sick because of those emissions, "…even if those odors can be connected…" to the plant.
KEN FORD: I was told, Mr. Ford, the easiest thing for you would be to pick up and move. That would be so simple.
BRANCACCIO: Why don't you move?
KEN FORD: I've been fighting this for so long, I feel like it's just got to come to an end some day. Somebody's got to realize the truth about what's going on.
BRANCACCIO: Fed up, Ford and his group reached out to environmentalists for help.
KEN FORD: So right now we don't have the street name here, a sign here, so we'll use the GPS, and will use the co-ordinates.
BRANCACCIO: They got a device called "The Bucket" to take air samples around ExxonMobil's facility. They also enlisted the help of law students from nearby Tulane University. Combing through reports submitted by the refinery to the state, the students found evidence that the refinery had been violating federal Clean Air Standards for years. Ford and the students went to court. And earlier this year, the judge ruled in their favor, saying the refinery had indeed broken the law.
KEN FORD: Do you feel nauseated? Do you have a headache or anything?
BRANCACCIO: It was because of their work investigating health problems that Ford's group became worried about something else: the possibility of a catastrophic release of deadly chemicals.
Adam Babich is the Tulane University law professor who represents Ford's group.
ADAM BABICH, PROFESSOR, TULANE UNIVERSITY: Some of the violations in litigation here are purposeful violations. That is, the refinery knows it's violating its permit, and it does it anyway, primarily because it's a more convenient way to run operations.
BRANCACCIO: Babich's group of students also found an alarming number of breakdowns at the plant problems which they say raise questions about the overall safety of the facility.
ADAM BABICH: But the explanation also often comes down to saying we had now way of knowing that was gonna happen, it was an accident. The problem with that explanation is, why are there so many accidents at this facility? In other words, why can't his facility operate in a stable, safe manner?
LOCAL TV COVERAGE: Chalmette has seen its share of explosions…
BRANCACCIO: And there have been more than just little accidents at the Chalmette refinery. A little over a year ago, a train hit a tanker truck leaving the refinery, starting a fire and killing three. And then there was the fire of January 2001.
JOY LEWIS: It was a huge fire, and it burned for oh, goodness, it burned for at least several hours. And the smoke was unreal.
BRANCACCIO: The refinery has a hotline to call to find out what to do in emergencies just like this one. So Johnny Lewis picked up the phone.
JOHNNY LEWIS: And you know what you got on the other end of the phone? The refinery is, it's in perfect operating condition. They give you the temperature, the wind velocity, and all that. But they don't tell you that the place is on fire.
BRANCACCIO: The chemical that worries them the most is hyrdofluoric acid, called "H.F." For short. H.F. is used at refineries to boost the octane of gasoline. And the refinery here stores more than half a million pounds of it. Ford remembers an incident several years ago under the plant's previous owners in which refinery employees misplaced two vials of H.F.
KEN FORD: They warned people, if you find these bottles, do not open them. You get one drop on you, it'll eat down to the bone.
BRANCACCIO: H.F. can pose a huge threat when it gets into the air. H.F. forms an aerosol cloud that can drift for miles. In 1986, in a study funded by the oil company Amoco, scientists conducted a test in the Nevada desert.
FILM: The cloud formed by this release is visible for 2,000 feet because of small droplets of hydrogen flouride.
BRANCACCIO: This is the first time the video has been shown on television. Scientists released a small amount of H. F. into the air, far less than what's typically stored at refineries. They were stunned when potentially lethal concentrations of H.F. were discovered in the atmosphere up to six miles away.
KEN FORD: It's a terrible death. It's a terrible thing. It's one way you don't want to die. And if you should inhale this hydrofluoric acid, it just melts your lungs. It's just horrible. It's unbelievable the pain and the agony you go through.
BRANCACCIO: Accidents involving H.F. are common. Nationwide, there were nearly two hundred seventy such accidents in the ten years from 1992 to 2002 that's one every two weeks. In 1987, 66 people were seriously injured and another 3000 had to flee their homes when a broken pipe at a refinery in Texas City, Texas sent a cloud of H.F. gas over the town.
According to this informational pamphlet prepared by the ExxonMobil refinery in Chalmette, a bad accident at its facility could endanger the entire New Orleans metro region. That's an area with a population of over one million people.
BRANCACCIO: How have your concerns been received? Has the refinery taken action based on your direct complaints?
KEN FORD: None at all. None whatsoever. They do not.
BRANCACCIO: ExxonMobil has made it clear they don't think much about Ford and his group. Officials at ExxonMobil headquarters declined an interview for this report, saying they didn't think it was worth their time. Those officials also told the local plant spokesperson here not to talk with us.
BRANCACCIO: However, ExxonMobil did send us a statement, saying that safety is their number one priority. They say the Chalmette refinery has several systems designed to prevent an H.F. leak, including a "state-of-the-art water wall mitigation system" designed to douse and isolate any leaks. They also say they're investing more than $200 million in plant upgrades.
MEGHAN PURVIS, U.S. PIRG: Currently, a lot of the focus is on physical security.
BRANCACCIO: Meghan Purvis works for the US Public Interest Research Group, an advocacy organization focused on public safety.
MEGHAN PURVIS: At many of these facilities, they're investing in things like higher fences and hiring more guards. And these things are going to be ineffective when dealing with a determined intruder.
BRANCACCIO: Purvis says there's a better way to make refineries safer. There are other, less lethal chemicals besides H. F. That can be used to make gasoline. Many believe using them would take away the incentive for terrorists to attack refineries in the first place.
MEGHAN PURVIS: There are alternatives.
BRANCACCIO: So why don't these facilities just swap it?
MEGHAN PURVIS: It often unfortunately comes down to either industry inertia, or cost.
BRANCACCIO: Even some of the oil industry's biggest supporters agree, security improvements are not enough. Congressman Joe Barton of Texas has been such a friend to industry his hometown newspaper gave him the nickname "Smokey Joe." In 2003, he told THE NATIONAL JOURNAL that when it comes to security, terrorists could, "overwhelm everything that you put up short of some sort of Fort Knox."
Some refineries have started to switch to less deadly chemicals. This is the Woods Cross Refinery outside of Salt Lake City. It uses so-called "modified H.F.," which doesn't disperse so easily if accidently released. An industry Web site shows the area affected by an escape of modified H.F. would be much smaller than regular H.F. It cost Woods Cross Refinery five million dollars to make the switch, but plant managers told us increased safety was worth it. They even said they're considering using modified H.F. at their other refineries.
Which gets us back to that proposal in Congress from 2001 we talked about earlier. That proposal would have required that facilities like refineries explore the feasibility of switching to safer chemicals, like modified H.F.
Both the chemical industry and the oil industry objected big time. The American Petroleum Institute, along with its member companies like ExxonMobil, spent $33 million dollars lobbying Congress at the time that proposal was being considered. Lou Hayden works for the American Petroleum Institute.
LOU HAYDEN, API: I think the oil and gas industry is not concerned with whether, at the end of the day, whether a bill passes or not. What we're concerned about is making security better to make sure we move the security ball forward and not move it backward.
BRANCACCIO: Hayden says, yes, they didn't like the chemical swapping idea, but there was a lot else they didn't like about the bill. For instance, it would have put the EPA in charge of chemical plant security, instead of the Department of Homeland Security. Another API member, BP Amoco, complained in a letter to the White House. Senior Bush advisor Karl Rove wrote back, saying, "we have a similar set of concerns," and promised he'd share BP Amoco's letter with "others at the White House."
BRANCACCIO: Should a citizen worry that the Department of Homeland Security is more business friendly, and therefore, in a sense, you're shopping for a regulator that would be easy to live with?
LOU HAYDEN: No, I don't think it's a stretch to say that counterterrorism responsibility should be in the hands of the Department of Homeland Security.
BRANCACCIO: Just yesterday, the Senate unanimously adopted a resolution saying it was determined to enact standards for chemical plants. But that vote was largely ceremonial. It's been left up to a Senate committee, led by Republican Susan Collins of Maine to actually put forth a real bill.
SUSAN COLLINS (R-ME): It is time to actually put forward legislation to reduce the vulnerability of our nation's chemical facilities from a terrorist attack…
BRANCACCIO: Collins has promised to seek bi-partisan support. However, when we asked her office if that bill would address the issue of chemical swapping, they said that's up in the air.
BRANCACCIO: What's wrong with the federal government stepping in and saying, refineries, we want to encourage you to try these alternatives?
LOU HAYDEN: Each of these decisions on process has to be made refinery by refinery. There are no two refineries that are the same.
BRANCACCIO: That view is echoed by ExxonMobil. In their statement, the company says making the choice between using H. F. or something else is, "a complicated one involving many variables."
But consider this: that safer chemical that's being used by the refinery near Salt Lake City? Its brand name is "ReVap" and ExxonMobil helped develop it. In fact, a few years ago, ExxonMobil made the switch to ReVap at one of its refineries in California, after state officials there expressed concerns about how that facility was being run.
In Chalmette, Joy and Johnny Lewis have a theory about that. They suspect it might be because Californians seem willing to make a little more noise when it comes to the environment than their neighbors in Louisiana.
JOY LEWIS: There's a few people that actually think we're crazy because we're involved. Because they tell me, "Oh, you're fighting them. You're fighting a monster there. You're a little ant." Or, "You're a flea on a dog."
JOHNNY LEWIS: When I told people what I was gonna do, or wanted to do, they said you can't even penetrate the skin of the refinery. You're wasting your time. The best thing you can do is move.
BRANCACCIO: But you don't buy that.
JOHNNY LEWIS: No sir, I don't. I wouldn't be here today if I bought that. Even if it's just a little bit, I feel like I'm doing something.