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The chemical industry has a history of disasters. Among the worst, in 1947 a fertilizer tanker ship exploded in Texas City, TX, killing nearly 600 people and injuring 3,500. In 1984, a cloud of methyl isocyanate from a Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, killed 4,000 people and injured as many as half a million. So it’s no wonder that anti-terrorism experts voice concerns about the vulnerability of the nation’s chemical plants.

Despite the warnings, the chemical industry, its supporters in Congress, and top officials in the Bush Administration have fought hard against laws to tighten security. But this September, when Congress returns to Washington, it may finally pass legislation to mandate that chemical plants – and the industry’s customers that store large quantities of hazardous chemicals – reduce the inherent risk of catastrophes.

The sticking point will be whether to force facilities that pose the greatest risk to use so-called “inherently safer technology” – a catchall for alternative processes or process conditions enabling a plant to produce or store less of the most hazardous chemicals.

Chemical producers have fought off proposals to mandate such behavior for more than two decades, claiming that the government is ill-equipped to regulate chemical processes. But in the wake of continuing terrorist threats, many in Congress, as well as among emergency responders, are losing their patience for the industry’s foot-dragging.

“We’re talking about a human being with intent to commit mass murder,” says Carolyn Merritt, chair of the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, an independent federal agency that investigates chemical accidents. (The agency is comparable to the National Transportation Safety Board, which probes airline, bus, and train crashes.)

The threat is staggering. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 123 chemical facilities in the United States are located where a catastrophic release from them could injure or kill more than one million people each. Using a slightly different model, the Department of Homeland Security projects that 272 chemical facilities threaten at least 50,000 people each. “It is a real threat, and we as a country would be wise to take precautions,” says Merritt.

Since September 11, 2001, the U.S. chemical industry claims it’s invested $3 billion in security upgrades. But news reports of journalists walking into plants unimpeded have raised doubts about the industry’s ability to fend off terrorists. And so have a series of recent reports from federal agencies. The latest, the “Terrorism and the Chemical Infrastructure” study, released by the National Academy of Sciences this summer, put inherently safer technology at the top of its list of options for protecting communities. “The most desirable solution to preventing chemical releases is to reduce or eliminate the hazard where possible, not to control it,” the report concludes.

Examples of technological solutions include modifying a chemical process to operate at lower temperatures and pressures, replacing hazardous substances with safer substitutes (such as using a liquid ammonia reagent instead of gaseous ammonia), and using “mini-reactors” that produce hazardous ingredients on an as-needed basis, eliminating transportation and bulk storage. Unfortunately, the academy’s study panel concluded, the implementation of such safety measures is “quite limited” – because chemical producers frequently lack an economic incentive to make the changes.

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