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While President Bush continues to make terrorism and domestic security the centerpiece of his campaign, he has made little mention of one of the most urgent threats to our safety: the risk that terrorists could cause thousands, even millions, of deaths by sabotaging one of the 15,000 industrial chemical plants across the United States.
A terrorist group could cause even greater harm by entering a plant in the United States and setting off an explosion that produces a deadly gas cloud.
The administration knows the dangers. Soon after the 9/11 attacks, Sen. Jon Corzine, D-N.J., highlighted the issue with legislation requiring chemical plants to enhance security and use safer chemicals and technologies when feasible. (Such safer substitutes are widely available.)
A study by the Army surgeon general, conducted soon after 9/11, found that up to 2.4 million people could be killed or wounded by a terrorist attack on a single chemical plant.
More than 100 facilities nationwide that store large amounts of lethal chemicals are located near communities of at least 1 million people, congressional researchers say.
Officials are concerned that the plants, located in 23 states, are tempting targets for terror attacks.
The report estimates at least 106 and as many as 111 plants are located near population centers of 1 million people or more. Up to 29 of the plants were located in Texas -- more than twice as many than in any other state. California had 11 to 13; Illinois 12 or 13; Ohio eight, Florida and New Jersey seven each.
According to the U.S. EPA, 123 chemical facilities in the United States each threaten a million or more nearby residents. More than 700 plants could put at least 100,000 people at risk, and more than 3,000 facilities have at least 10,000 people nearby.
Yet there is no federal counterterrorism security standard for chemical plants or refineries. And there is no way to assure citizens that chemical and oil companies are taking adequate precautions. Instead, the EPA is counting on the industry to take the necessary precautions voluntarily, no matter the cost.
"Certainly, the industry has a very powerful incentive to do the right thing," said Bob Bostock, assistant EPA administrator for homeland security. "It ought to be their worst nightmare that their facility would be target of a terrorist act because they did not meet their responsibility to the community."
A suburban California chemical plant routinely loads chlorine into 90-ton railroad cars that, if ruptured, could poison more than 4 million people in Orange and Los Angeles counties, depending on wind speed, direction and the ambient temperature.
• A Philadelphia refinery keeps 400,000 pounds of hydrogen fluoride that could asphyxiate nearly 4 million nearby residents.
• A South Kearny, N.J., chemical company's 180,000 pounds of chlorine or sulfur dioxide could form a cloud that could threaten 12 million people.
• The West Virginia sister plant of the infamous Union Carbide Corp. factory in Bhopal, India, keeps up to 200,000 pounds of methyl isocyanate that could emit a toxic fog over 60,000 people near Charleston.
• The Atofina Chemicals Inc. plant outside Detroit projects that a rupture of one of its 90-ton rail cars of chlorine could endanger 3 million people.
According to the National Transportation Safety Board and the Coast Guard, a large leak of chlorine gas can travel two miles in only 10 minutes and remain acutely toxic to a distance of about 20 miles.
Evidence of al Qaeda's interest in chemical attacks is well known -- copies of U.S. chemical trade publications were found in an Osama bin Laden hideout last week.
But al Qaeda terrorists are not alone in considering attacks on chemical plants and refineries. Such plots have involved anti-government militia members in the United States and Chechen rebels in Russia.