Deadly chemicals and lax security are a dangerous combination, especially in the post-9/11 world.
Graniteville, S.C., population 1,200, wouldn't make anybody's list of top terrorist targets, but the rural town 10 miles northeast of Augusta, Ga., is Exhibit A in the case for pushing chemicals higher on the risk list of deadly means of attack. At 2:39 a.m. on Jan. 6, 2005, a northbound Norfolk Southern freight train destined for Columbia, S.C., encountered an improperly aligned switch at Graniteville and was diverted from the main line onto another track near the town's commercial district. The train, hurtling through the misaligned switch at about 47 mph, crashed into an unoccupied parked train and collapsed on itself like an accordion. Its two locomotives and 16 of its 42 cars derailed, as did the locomotive and one of two cars of the standing train. The derailment occurred in a yard at Avondale Mills, a textile manufacturing facility that includes several plants.
Had the train been carrying grain or coal or automobiles, it would have been a blip on the screen of railway accidents, thousands of which occur annually. But five of the 16 derailed cars were carrying hazardous materials: Three tank cars held 270 tons of chlorine-one of them was punctured. Another car held sodium hydroxide, and the fifth held residue of rosin, which is transported as a heated liquid.
Chlorine is a poisonous gas. When inhaled, it reacts with moisture in the respiratory tract to form hydrochloric acid, which inflames the lungs. Severe exposure causes death by suffocation. According to the National Transportation Safety Board investigation of the crash, the chlorine rapidly vaporized and expanded when it spilled from the punctured car, creating a toxic cloud around the derailment site. Within minutes of the crash, six mill workers, some of whom worked on loading docks, a truck driver at one of the plant facilities and a nearby resident were dead. In all the cases, the coroner reported asphyxia as the cause of death. The conductor and engineer survived the crash and fled on foot before the engineer collapsed. Passersby quickly got them to a local hospital for treatment. The conductor was treated and released, but the engineer died several hours later from chlorine exposure.
Hundreds of mill workers and residents fled on their own or were rescued by local fire and law enforcement personnel, some of whom arrived just minutes after the crash. The emergency response was efficient and effective, according to the NTSB investigation. More than 550 people were taken to hospitals; 75 were admitted for treatment, including a firefighter who remained hospitalized for days.
While there was no accompanying fire, the gas is so corrosive that it destroyed two fire department pumper trucks, one medical unit vehicle and one service truck that reported to the scene. It corroded wiring in cars and cell phones, bleached buildings and turned formerly lush foliage pale green. It crept through homes and offices, where it ate away electrical wiring and circuit boards in computers, destroying financial records and other critical data at the mill. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention later documented that four family pets suffered respiratory failure and died, and that fish in nearby Horse Creek were killed off when chlorine gas combined with water vapor, dousing them in hydrochloric acid. Residents were prohibited from returning to their homes and workers to their jobs for two weeks while the cleanup and investigations took place.
As horrific as the accident was for those involved, it was just that: an accident. NTSB found that railway workers had failed to realign the tracks after moving a local train onto the industry tracks the previous evening; an FBI hazardous materials unit found no evidence that anyone had tampered with the switch. A simple human error, the cause of most railway accidents, was to blame.
But that finding is hardly reassuring. Instead, the accident highlights the tremendous vulnerability of millions of Americans nationwide to a chemical accident or deliberate chemical attack. Had the Graniteville accident occurred elsewhere, say, in northern New Jersey, during the middle of the business day, thousands of people might have been killed. Even in Graniteville, it could have been far worse: The punctured rail car was relatively new and among the strongest tank cars currently in service; an accident involving an older tank car could have released more chlorine more quickly. If the accident had occurred a few hours later, hundreds more people could have been exposed to the gas.
Despite the known threat, which Richard Falkenrath, former Homeland Security director of policy and plans, calls "the most severe and widespread mass casualty vulnerability in America today," Congress and the administration have done relatively little to mitigate it in the five years since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The implementation of safety standards at chemical plants largely falls to the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, but until now, security measures have been voluntarily adopted, or not, by the chemical industry. The 2007 Homeland Security Appropriations Act, signed into law in October, for the first time requires the Homeland Security Department to publish interim rules for chemical plant security by April 2008, and to establish risk-based performance standards for chemical facilities. It also gives the DHS secretary the power to shut plants that do not meet the standards. But many questions remain. The law allows for "alternative security programs established by private sector entities" and exempts public water facilities and wastewater treatment plants, the main users of chlorine. It also does not address chemical transport, where serious vulnerabilities remain.
Life and Death Matters
In the hierarchy of chemical hazards, gases-or toxic inhalation hazards in industry parlance-present the greatest catastrophic potential. The two most common TIH chemicals are ammonia and chlorine, and as dangerous as they are (the U.S. Naval Research Lab estimated that a chlorine tanker car rupture in Washington could kill 100,000 people in half an hour, depending on weather conditions and time of day), they are essential components of modern life. Chlorine, which is used to make drinking water safe and wastewater harmless, might have saved more lives worldwide than any other substance.
TIH industrial chemicals routinely are shipped through and stored near large population centers in multiton quantities. Falkenrath, one of the most outspoken proponents of boosting chemical security, repeatedly has called for greater regulation of the manufacture, storage and shipment of TIH chemicals. As a White House staff member after Sept. 11 and then senior policy planner at Homeland Security from 2002 until 2004, Falkenrath was responsible for chemical security, among other things. A year after he left DHS, while serving as a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, he told members of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that he felt compelled to speak out about the chemical security issue, despite his opposition to "calling attention to America's most serious vulnerabilities."
"I have come to the conclusion that, in my current capacity as a private citizen, a blunt public discussion of my analysis of this issue is a better course of action than silence," he said. His assessment was indeed blunt: "The security that exists at any particular facility is essentially the outcome of voluntary, discretionary decisions made by the owners and operators of the facilities. There is no security whatsoever along TIH transportation routes. There exists no comprehensive, authoritative assessment of the quality of the security of U.S. chemical facilities and the conveyance systems, but anecdotal information of poor or nonexistent security in this sector is overwhelming."
Although there is some debate about how dangerous the most dangerous facilities are, Falkenrath said even the most conservative estimates recognize there is at least one U.S. facility which, if attacked, could result in more than 1 million deaths. Scientific estimates of attack scenarios that could result in tens or hundreds of thousands of deaths are "commonplace," he said.
"It is a fallacy to think that profit-maximizing corporations engaged in a trade as inherently dangerous as the manufacture and shipment of TIH chemicals will ever voluntarily provide a level of security that is appropriate given the larger external risk to society as a whole," Falkenrath said. "Nor is this an especially radical point of view: The body politic does not trust nuclear power plant or commercial airport operators to provide appropriate levels of security on a voluntary basis, and for good reason." He called for a comprehensive inventory of all chemical facilities, organized by risk into tiers; graduated standards for facilities in each tier; a certification procedure by which owners vouch for security standards at their facilities; a verification procedure by which federal officials confirm that certifications are complete and accurate; a compliance mechanism of escalating penalties by which federal agents could compel facilities to meet security standards; and an appeals process by which plant owners could contest government findings and penalties.
In addition, Falkenrath called for statutory provisions to protect information surrounding the vulnerability of specific chemical facilities. "A referral of a chemical security issue to the courts should not result in the publication of information which could assist a terrorist organization in locating and attacking a target which presents the potential for catastrophic civilian casualties," he said.
Now the deputy commissioner of counterterrorism for the New York Police Department, Falkenrath reiterated his concerns before the same committee in September. "My view of this matter has not changed," he said.
Steven G. King, director of Homeland Security's chemical security office, wrote in a recent issue of The Guardian, a quarterly newsletter for the Infragard National Member Alliance, that Homeland Security is conducting vulnerability assessments at 300 chemical facilities across the country where an attack could potentially affect more than 50,000 people. The alliance is a member organization developed by the FBI in 1996 and is dedicated to critical infrastructure protection. In addition, DHS is developing a specific chemical sector plan under the National Infrastructure Protection Plan, King wrote.
It's not clear how the 2007 Homeland Security Appropriations Act will bolster that plan (a DHS spokeswoman did not respond to repeated requests to interview King or someone on his staff), but King noted in his article the problem with relying on companies to voluntarily meet higher standards: "While many companies have taken this responsibility quite seriously and spent significant resources enhancing the security of their facilities, not all companies have done so. As a result, the nation is being held hostage by those few who have not undertaken the responsibility that they have to make sure their facilities are secured to an appropriate level."
Safety vs. Security
Even with more authority granted under the 2007 appropriation law, it is unclear how much Homeland Security realistically can do. There are more than 15,000 facilities in the United States that produce, use or store hazardous chemicals in amounts the Environmental Protection Agency identifies as posing the greatest risk to human health and the environment. The Government Accountability Office identified more than 100 plants that, if attacked, would threaten the lives of more than 1 million Americans. Homeland Security itself has identified about 3,400 high-priority chemical facilities. Evaluating those plants, establishing security standards and then enforcing those standards will take time and effort.
And the plants themselves are only part of the challenge. The Transportation Department estimates 800,000 shipments of hazardous materials travel daily throughout the United States by ground, rail, air, water and pipeline. And while most chemicals reach their destination safely, some rail shipments are so dangerous to humans that the CDC last year recommended diverting them around major metropolitan areas whenever feasible. After the Graniteville accident, the Washington city council passed a law banning rail shipments of hazardous materials through downtown. International shipper and railroad company CSX sued the District, claiming it overreached its authority (a claim the federal government supports), and a federal judge stayed the ban until the case can be decided. Other cities have considered similar bans, but none has passed one.
"Traffic and the congestion that goes with it are growing in every area of transportation-rail is no exception," says Joseph H. Boardman, administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration. The increase in traffic, including loads of hazardous materials, translates to a higher risk of accidents, most caused by human error, he says.
He attributes the increase in hazardous shipments largely to the growing use of ethanol. "But there's hazardous materials, and then there's TIH. With TIH, we're taking steps working with industry to reduce the amount of TIH that's moving across the country."
Since 1965, there have been 2.2 million tank car shipments of chlorine, according to the rail administration. Of those, 788, or 0.036 percent, were involved in accidents. Eleven of those accidents, or 0.0005 percent of all shipments, resulted in catastrophic loss, meaning all of the chlorine was released. Of those 11, four resulted in 24 fatalities, including the Graniteville accident that killed nine. In May 2005, four months after Graniteville, the FRA initiated its Rail Safety Action Plan aimed at, among other things, reducing human error. Boardman says the plan has improved rail safety: Between January and June 2005, there were 610 rail accidents attributed to human error. Over the same time period this year, there were 488. In late December, Homeland Security proposed new rules requiring shippers to ensure custody of TIH shipments from point of origin to final destination. Additionally, TSA will create a tracking system to quickly locate rail cars carrying TIH materials, according to an agency announcement.
While safety and security are related, they should not be conflated, Boardman says. "We've had zero attacks and therefore zero fatalities in our rail system since 9/11, but that's not so in the rest of the world." Between Sept. 11, 2001, and the end of 2005, Boardman says deliberate attacks on rail systems overseas killed nearly 500 people. "They've occurred in India, Russia, Spain and the United Kingdom, and they contribute to our collective anxiety and fear."
Over the same period, however, there were about 4,000 fatalities on the rails in the United States-none due to terrorism, all related to safety issues. "That points out to me that the FRA [has] to research and help design devices to help prevent injury, to establish and require compliance with proper inspection, repair and operating practices-all those things, without being so diverted from that for security issues that we don't continue to work on reducing that number of 4,000."
"Safety first is the motto in transportation. Safety today is a state of being certain that adverse effects will not be caused by some agent under defined conditions. That benefits security. We're not differentiating what that agent is-we could have a broken rail, and that could be from a bar fracture, from vandals or from something worse," Boardman says. "But there are some risks, such as a terrorist attack on a passenger train, that are really beyond the conditions that FRA and [the Transportation Department] considered when they set the standards."