Video: Chemical plant security

By Pete Williams Justice correspondent
NBC News
updated 4/27/2005 8:04:10 PM ET 2005-04-28T00:04:10

When a hose broke on a chlorine tank near St. Louis two years ago, dangerous gas spread quickly, forcing evacuations and sending dozens to the hospital. Federal investigators later discovered that plant workers couldn't do much, because their safety equipment was stored too close to the leaking tank.

That lack of readiness, safety experts told Congress Wednesday, is so widespread that chemical sites are sitting ducks for terror attacks.

"If companies have not maintained their first line of response with regard to a potential release, then the public is exposed," says Carolyn Merritt, an investigator with the U.S. Chemical Safety Board.

How bad is the problem? The Environmental Protection Agency says it found 123 chemical plants where a release would threaten more than 1 million people.

But government safety inspectors say most communities:

  • Are not ready to handle even small releases;
  • Have no system for getting warnings out other than going door-to-door;
  • Don't know whether to order residents to stay home or leave;
  • In evacuations, often don't give clear instructions, leaving some to head for the toxic clouds.

A former Bush White House terrorism adviser told Congress Wednesday that the administration hasn't done enough.

"I think it is safe to say that the federal government has made, itself, no material reduction in the inherent vulnerability of this target set since 9/11," Richard Falkenrath told the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs.

The chemical industry encourages plants to voluntarily improve their security, but now actually supports more government regulation, saying it would standardize security and make all companies share the burden equally.

Many at the Homeland Security Department believe voluntary improvements have done all they can and Congress should set mandatory safety rules for an industry that is so vulnerable.

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