WASHINGTON -- Homeland Security watchdogs call them "prepositioned weapons of mass destruction" for terrorists: huge tanks of concentrated deadly gases that the chemical industry stores near densely populated areas and that railroads bring through cities en route to somewhere else.
The United States harbors more than 100 chemical facilities where an accident would put more than a million people at risk, according to documents filed with the Environmental Protection Agency. One is in Boston: A chemical distributor acknowledged in its filing that in a worst-case scenario if a tank holding 180,000 pounds of vinyl acetate -- a highly flammable liquid -- ruptured, it would send a 4.9-mile-long toxic cloud through the city.
As federal security officials warn that Al Qaeda is poised to strike the United States again, the presence of these highly toxic chemicals in the midst of cities may be the most vulnerable point in the nation's defenses. But proposals to reduce that risk by requiring the use of alternative chemicals or rerouting hazardous tankers around a city have faltered.
Fear of such an attack on a chemical facility prompted bipartisan momentum in Congress after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks for requiring the chemical industry to switch to less dangerous processes where possible. Although many Republicans supported the measure initially, many changed their minds after intense industry lobbying, and the bill died on the Senate floor.
Nearly three years later, the laws regulating chemical plants remain the same as before Sept. 11 -- a striking exception to an otherwise transformed security landscape. Similarly, support has emerged for new regulations on railroads that carry dangerous materials such as chlorine through urban areas. Rupturing a chlorine rail tanker would produce a 40-mile-long cloud of the same deadly gas used as a weapon in World War I. But a first-in-the-nation proposal by the District of Columbia City Council to reroute tankers carrying such hazardous cargo around the nation's capital has been stalled for months: The chemical and rail industries objected, with backing from the Bush administration.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group, both industries heavily back the Republican Party. In the two election cycles since the Sept. 11 attacks, the railroad industry has given $9.5 million to political campaigns -- 77 percent of it to Republicans. The chemical manufacturing industry has given $11 million -- 78 percent of it to Republicans.
"It's a problem of political will," said Rick Hind, the toxics campaign director for the environmental group Greenpeace, which has lobbied for greater regulation. "The technology is there. Here in D.C., the water treatment plant got rid of its chlorine tanks eight weeks after 9/11 at a cost to the public of 50 cents more a year. Heck, I'd pay a dollar for that. I'd even pay $10 a year for the complete elimination of that facility as a potential target."
For example, proponents of greater regulations say, plants should use ozone as a disinfectant instead of chlorine. They could switch to making water-based paints to avoid a need for flammable organic solvents. Instead of making large batches of pesticides in open vats, manufacturers should use a continuous-flow process in a closed system.
The American Chemistry Council, the main lobbying arm of the $460 billion industry, has argued that promoting "inherently safer" approaches is too complicated a task for government regulation and could lead to harmful consequences: Requiring plants to keep less toxic chemicals on site, for example, might mean more delivery trips and a greater risk of accidents.
Marty Durbin, the council's security team leader, said companies should be allowed to decide for themselves which processes are best. He supports only legislation that would require chemical plants to evaluate their own site security threats, as those that are members of the ACC already do, and file them with the Department of Homeland Security.
"That's not running away from a regulatory regime," Durbin said. "We think we set the standard."
But Nicholas Ashford, director of the Technology and Law Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said even if a plant's facilities are well engineered to prevent an accident, they cannot prevent sabotage. A tank may have walls thick enough to withstand pressure, but it could still be penetrated by a shoulder-fired missile or a truck bomb that plows through a fence.
Ashford also contended that the industry is being disingenuous when it says it is already switching to less dangerous chemicals where it can. Many firm owners, he said, resist investing in modernization and need to be told to identify whether there are safer ways to accomplish the same goals.
The owner of the chemical facility in Boston, which the Globe is not identifying for security reasons, said he could not switch to inherently safer processes because he is a distributor, not a manufacturer. He said the company had an excellent safety record, noting it has never had a fire or major spill.
Chemical plant security could become an issue in the presidential campaign. Presumptive Democratic nominee Senator John F. Kerry recently started criticizing Bush on the issue, saying the president is failing to address the problem of chemical plant terrorism and is too closely tied to the industry.
"I wish their policies were as tough as their words," the Massachusetts lawmaker said in a speech last month.
A Bush campaign spokesman told reporters that Kerry was calling for measures the president has advocated -- measures that are already in legislation before the Senate. But the details of what's before Congress contradict that assertion.
In 2002, Senator Jon S. Corzine, Democrat of New Jersey, filed a bill that would have required chemical plants to submit security plans to the Environmental Protection Agency. And it would have required plants to consider whether using inherently safer alternatives was feasible. If so, they should switch over. If not, they had to explain why they wouldn't to the EPA.
That bill unanimously passed out of committee in July 2002.
But the chemical lobby -- with help from other industries that use stockpiled chemicals, such as oil and agriculture -- contended that the bill would empower the EPA to micromanage business. Two months later, seven Republicans who had voted for the bill sent a letter to their colleagues urging that the bill be stopped. It died on the Senate floor.
When Congress reconvened in 2003 under Republican control, Corzine reintroduced his bill with Kerry as a cosponsor, switching the regulator from the EPA to Homeland Security. Still, it has gone nowhere. Meanwhile, a former GOP supporter of the bill, Senator James M. Inhofe, Republican of Oklahoma, introduced a rival measure that passed out of committee last fall on a party-line vote. It focuses almost exclusively on mandating that firms assess their own perimeter security.
Critics say the Inhofe bill doesn't require plants to prove to the government that safer technologies weren't feasible. It only asks that they consider them. But even that limited requirement met opposition from the industry.
Durbin, the chemical lobbyist, says chemical companies want the bill changed to define "consider" in such a way that companies are not required "to fill out four three-ring binders to describe how they considered alternative approaches."
In any case, few give even this bill much chance of becoming law before this session ends at the end of the year. Companion bills to both the Inhofe and the Corzine proposals haven't gotten a subcommittee hearing in the House of Representatives, where US Representatives William J. "Billy" Tauzin and Joe Barton, Republicans of Louisiana and Texas, staunchly oppose regulation.
The Bush administration has made little effort to promote either measure. In October 2002, Homeland Security director Tom Ridge and then-EPA director Christine Whitman issued a joint statement saying that voluntary chemical plant security measures were not enough. But since then, the administration has not pushed Congress to move on the issue.
Asked what the administration's position on mandating consideration of inherently safer technology is, Robert Liscouski, the assistant Homeland Security secretary for infrastructure protection, would say in an interview only that the administration was reviewing the various proposals. He acknowledged that it is "a very sticky area."
But Liscouski emphasized the department was "not waiting for Congress to act" and was sending agents out to the most dangerous chemical plants to work with them to improve their security, to develop ties with law enforcement, and to plan for extra policing or even National Guard assistance if a threat arises.
And, he warned, the problem of what to do about the danger of chemical facilities inside cities was not a simple one, given the industry's importance to the economy and the benefits of its products. It's an industry that depends upon infrastructure built over 40 or 50 years that happens to be inside major cities, he said.
"Do you want to legislate the chemical industry out of business? I don't think so," he said. "So what you want is to provide better ways for the industry to secure itself along with partners at the state and local level."
The nascent debate over rerouting hazardous rail cars appears to be starting down the same path as that of chemical facilities. The potentially landmark bill in the District of Columbia council has stalled for five months while Homeland Security reviews it, and a spokesman said the department had not yet taken a position on the matter.
But the Bush administration's chief rail official, Federal Railroad Administration chief Allan Rutter, gave firm backing to the rail industry's position at a House railroads subcommittee hearing this month,
"While it might be tempting to simply reroute around cities," Rutter said, that would "jeopardize high-wage jobs" in cities with factories that use chemicals and could lead to "increased transit time and shipping costs."
At the same hearing, Association of American Railroads president Ed Hamburger argued against allowing local communities to force freight trains carrying hazardous materials around major cities, saying it would create a patchwork of laws that would drag down interstate commerce.
"Rerouting would lead to an increase of miles traveled, increasing switching and handling of cars, thereby increasing public exposure, and [it would] only transfer that exposure to other communities," Hamburger said.
But Washington-based environmentalist Fred Millar said terrorists want to attack the nation's capital, not Luray, Va. -- the town on the Norfolk & Southern rail line that is 50 miles west of the CSX line that runs past the Capitol.
"We have not had a disaster with rail security yet," he said. "But just wait until a terrorist does attack a chlorine tank car in a city. Everyone will pay attention to this."
Representative Edward J. Markey, Democrat of Malden, is drafting legislation that would give Homeland Security the authority to regulate when hazardous rail cargoes must be rerouted around population centers and require better background checks for people handling toxic materials.
"Obviously, [the rail industry] is not pleased that legislation is going to be introduced," he said. "We're trying to work with the industry to deal with their concerns, but I think it's something that has to be done just as a matter of ensuring that Al Qaeda does not have this as a way of creating a catastrophic terrorist event."
However, he said, he's not optimistic his bill will pass.